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Lady Like – BFI Flare 2024 (Film Review)

3 min read
Lady Like

Image: © Attic Box Productions

As well as being fun and entertaining, can also be healing and freeing. It's all of those things for Rex Wheeler, more popularly known as RuPaul's Drag Race finalist Lady Camden. Lady Like, a feature documentary, charts Lady Camden's journey from local performer to international celebrity. The film explores Rex's traumatic upbringing and troubles with stardom, as well as the highs of being in the drag community. Unfortunately, it's all so formulaic and surface-level that we still don't understand who Lady Camden truly is.

Born in London but based in San Francisco, Wheeler is a young artist who has always had an affinity for performing on stage. Director Luke Willis takes Wheeler back to key locations, such as the Electric Ballroom where his dad worked and the Smuin Ballet where he pursued a career as a professional ballet dancer before going into drag. These backstory scenes are intercut with the main narrative thread; season fourteen of Drag Race airing each week, with Lady Camden attending viewing parties and seeing public reactions form in real-time.  

The documentary, a feature debut for Willis, makes use of clips from Drag Race and online personalities, as well as intimate interview segments with Wheeler and Lady Camden. Going by the film's editing, fans of the show were unsure of Lady Camden and it took a while for people to warm to her and for Lady Camden to discover who she is as a drag performer. Willis pieces everything together to ask that question of identity, but there isn't space for Willis or Wheeler to answer the question. Most of what Lady Camden discusses are on-the-surface explanations of thoughts towards audience reactions and broad statements on how she didn't know who she was.

Perhaps those who watched Lady Camden's season of Drag Race have an understanding of her identity through her approaches to each challenge and thought processes in designing her outfits, but those watching Willis' film without having seen Drag Race won't gain any deep insights. What makes this documentary frustrating is that it is clearly intended for general audiences, with some fun narration and animation explaining how Drag Race works. But it never presents us with an answer to the central questions or offers us enough material to form our own answers. 

What we do see, however, is enough to keep engaged and empathetic towards Lady Camden. Willis knows how charismatic and likeable Wheeler is, and Lady Camden is a talented artist on stage. The documentary is competently edited, effortlessly flowing through the highs and lows of Lady Camden's journey. This makes it impossible not to smile when she enraptures crowds in key career moments. Some surprisingly thoughtful themes appear later in the film, such as the toll of touring across the world in a seemingly dream job.

Willis' documentary is a joyful celebration of how we can heal and save ourselves through performance arts and creativity. And of course, the film highlights how crucial the drag and queer communities are. Even though the title is in reference to Lady Camden, this isn't her story. You're better off going back to season fourteen of Drag Race for that narrative.  

Lady Like had its world premiere at the 2024 BFI Flare Festival.