Alaska is a Drag (2018)

I have a personal pet theory that drag and pro wrestling are the two most vital modern artforms specifically because they’re opposite sides of the same gender performance coin. I’ve yet to see that exact dichotomy explored on the big screen, but I feel like we’re inching closer to it every year. A 2012 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured a pro wrestling challenge (resulting in a Kenya Michaels and Latrice Royale tag team I’d kill to see weekly on WWE) but cinema is still behind the curve. 2016’s excellent The Fits established a similar masc/femme gender dichotomy between boxing & rhythmic dance, however, and the playfully titled Alaska is a Drag has now pushed that dynamic even closer to my ideal project by profiling a character caught between the worlds of boxing & drag. This microbudget indie isn’t exactly about gender performance (neither was The Fits, really), but it does allow that subject to weigh heavily on its mind as it floats effortlessly between the rigid boundaries of strictly gendered worlds. Alaska is a Drag is a delirious tale of small town brawn & glamor transcending a harshly cold environment to establish its own gender-defiant space in the world, all within the vessel of a single magnetic, instantly lovable lead performance.

Leo (newcomer Martin L. Washington, Jr.) is a factory worker at an Alaskan fish cannery who struggles to feel at home in a small industrial town without a strong, visible queer community. With more complaints about how he can’t wait to get out of this town than a mid-90s Less Than Jake album, he hangs his dreams for a better future on becoming an “international drag superstar” by way of moving to Hollywood. It’s not too difficult to see why he might want to get away. His go-nowhere job at the fish cannery is swarming with macho bullies who persecute him for being openly queer. His best friend/twin sister is dying of cancer. His dad is a compulsive gambler that keeps their household anchored to the poverty line. The only boy around with the confidence to flirt with him is a straight-identifying puzzle who gets just as dangerously black-out drunk as everyone else in town. The only refuges from these grim, isolating surroundings are a gay dive bar (operated by Margaret Cho) and an equally sparsely attended boxing gym (operated by Jason Scott Lee), spaces where he gets to express the fierceness & glamor the world stifles in him otherwise. Plot-wise, it’s a typical coming of age story that inevitably barrels toward the big boxing match & drag show climaxes you’d likely expect, but as a character study it’s exceedingly easy to fall in love with Leo, no matter what aspect of himself he’s presenting.

Director Shaz Bennett reports to have conceived the screenplay for Alaska is a Drag while working in a fish cannery herself, daydreaming about the lives of her fellow factory workers. The movie reflects that loopy daydream logic in its unashamedly cheap CGI rainbows & washes of Aurora effects that gleefully clash with Leo’s working-class surroundings, recalling the similar flights of fancy in last year’s Patti Cake$. There is both a misery & a dark humor to the repetition of monotonous routine in factory work as presented in the film, something that’s only interrupted by the disco balls & glitter of Leo’s drag superstar daydreams. As the daily rhythms of repetitive factory work begin to resemble song, Dancer in the Dark-style musical reveries mentally transport Leo to his drag-themed happy place. He doesn’t start to fully explore his own unique identity until he incorporates drag & boxing into a simultaneous, boundary-free expression of his full personality, importing golden boxing gloves into his drag-themed reveries & bringing makeup into the boxing ring at his sister’s behest. If drag & boxing are coded as opposing forces of gender expression in the film, Leo’s triumph in self-actualization is in learning to combine them to establish a well-balanced persona (which is, again, fairly similar to the central character arc in the far less gleefully silly The Fits).

Washington’s performance as Leo is the main draw here, especially in sequences where he interacts with Maya Washington, playing his sister Tristen. It’s baffling that the two actors are not related in real life, considering their lived-in chemistry & convincing familiarity. There’s nothing the movie could possibly muster to match the endlessly endearing energy of the twins voguing, mean-mugging, and playing dress-up out of small-town Alaskan boredom, not even Margo Cho performing in a drag king get-up or an ancient drag queen hissing bitchy quips through their tracheotomy hole. Alaska is a Drag struggles to create substantial drama outside the siblings’ desire to skip town, but it does excel in clashing the glamor of their international drag superstar daydreams with the harsh reality of dead fish & grim factory work. It flirts with the trappings of coming-of-age queer misery dramas, but mostly indulges in the fantasies of escaping that backdrop through the gender-exaggerated mediums of boxing & drag. Alaska is a Drag is not exactly the drag & pro wrestling gender performance daydream I’ve personally entertained while going about my own daily monotony, but it was close enough to at least partially satisfy that craving without making too much of a big deal out of it. It instead weaves its own gendered dichotomy into a character study of a put-upon young dreamer who desperately needs the mental escape both drag & boxing offer. Washington does an incredible job of making that character a thorough joy to watch, as Bennett deftly backs him up with a colorful fantasy world backdrop that emerges from between the cracks of a grim, industrial setting.

-Brandon Ledet

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