Swan Song is a new delightful gem within modern queer cinema, but it doesn’t end there. It’s a delicate story of self-worth and forgiveness, told through the eyes of an aging flamboyant stylist in conservative America. This is the fourth film from director Todd Stephens and the third in his ‘Ohio Trilogy’ following Edge of Seventeen and Gypsy 83. Stephens has proved to pour as much of his soul into his work, with his Ohio-based films drawing from his upbringing as a young outcast in the quiet lakeshore town of Sandusky. Swan Song is just as personal as his previous work, though its charm is incomparable.
Based on a true icon, as Stephens puts it, Swan Song follows Pat Pitsenbarger, a retired hair stylist who is counting off his final days inside a senior home. He used to dominate Sandusky with his very own hair salon, being the go-to person for anyone willing to pay the price for beauty. Revitalizing his clients’ looks by day and being the center of attention at the only local Gay bar by night, Pat was a force to be reckoned with. Life sadly got the best of him, leading him to now residing in solitude, but an opportunity arises that could potentially settle the demons of his past.
Pat is called upon to style his ex best friend’s corpse for her funeral. A conservative social figure in town, she makes it clear in her will that only Pat can style her hair and makeup before she is buried – a last attempt to apologize for burning the bridge. Pat initially refuses, but by the time he finds the good in him to say yes, the only option is to sneak out of the nursing home and trek the journey to the funeral across rural town on foot. There is where Swan Song starts to show its cards. The film’s personality may hook the viewer from the very beginning, but it’s at this point where one starts to realize that Stephens has a lot more in store, with a lot more to say.
Played by Udo Kier, a gay icon in his own right with his film history with John Waters, the German actor is probably more recognizable to today’s folks from starring in Horror. Kier has a particular demeanor that makes him perfect for playing evil, and Swan Song gives him the opportunity to go as far in the opposite direction. He doesn’t take the chance lightly, and owns the screen with all the gravitas he can conjure. It’s almost as if Swan Song is a release of everything most previous roles have denied him, not to be confused with simply expressing more of his true self, but it’s the kind of late-career performance every actor aspires to. Unapologetic, yet nuanced thanks to his trademark screen presence.
Pat, known as ‘Mister Pat’ on the Drag stage, is inspired by a real person of the same name from Stephens’ life. The filmmaker has cited him as one of his earliest influences coming out in a blue-collar community. As such, Stephens frames Swan Song with love and honesty. Pat’s trek of late redemption across town is almost like a queer fable, meeting old and new faces with tests of faith along the way. True to heart delicacy is at the center of the film, and is what saves it when occasionally slipping up. Stephens tries to get in as much homage and narrative shout outs as he can, which is admirable in honoring the real life Pat, even if leading to some tonal inconsistencies. At worst the film starts to feel like it’s going too far off track, at best it captures a genuine lens into an unsung corner of queer America.
Swan Song works better when Stephens lets his characters and atmosphere speak for itself, instead when using said breathing room to fit in more subplots. Still, this is coming from such a sincere place and handled mostly with a steady hand that one can’t really blame the filmmaker here. His personal touch is invaluable to this story, and despite leaving the need for some additional refining within the script’s structure, Stephens still achieves in making a far-reaching film. A noteworthy feat considering how peculiar Stephens’ methods may be. This is already shaping to be a sweet spot in modern queer cinema, but Swan Song could do a lot of good if given the exposure it deserves. A fine example of an indie film that doesn’t have to be exactly perfect to retain its full power. Everything aside, Udo Kier didn’t serve this hard for it to go by unnoticed.