Sophie Dupuis’s Solo is getting a rare Toronto theatre release this weekend. The Québécois film is set in Montreal’s drag scene and won top honours at TIFF — taking home Best Canadian Feature.
It follows young drag star Simon (played by a captivating and vulnerable Théodore Pellerin) as he falls for a new queen and tries to extract love from his famous and disinterested mother.
Writer-director Dupuis got the idea for the film a few years ago while watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
“I was very admirative of the art form, but I got to listen to them talking about their lives, their family, where they’re coming from. I thought there was something to say about that,” she said in an interview with CBC News.
And, she was interested in toxic relationships — how they developed, why people stay and what they get out of them, and thought Pellerin, who she worked with twice before, would be perfect in the lead role.
The film is being released at a time where drag performances are drawing angry protests across Canada and the U.S. (since last year, more than 160 drag events have been targeted, according to GLAAD), and hate crimes targeting LGBTQ people are rising dramatically.
The result is a deep, introspective look at Montreal’s drag culture that can help create empathy and understanding. The film had a large LGBQ cast and crew, and Dupuis says it was always intended to have “queer characters but for whom queerness is never an issue.”
After writing the film and casting Pellerin in the lead role, she interviewed hundreds of people.
“It was very emotional because people were telling [me] how important that kind of film would be for the culture and even for them — that this was maybe the kind of film that they needed when they were young,” said Dupuis.
“And for people behind the camera, I thought it was a good idea to have queer people who know about drag culture and that got the references.”
Local queens on a local budget
They created six new drag queens for the show, casting a mix of actors and real-life queens, and had a choreographer come in to help coach actors on dancing and bringing a femininity to their performances.
Montreal-based drag queen Gisèle Lullaby saw the film at an early premiere and said it’s a good representation of the Montreal drag scene in the early 2000s, before Ru Paul’s Drag Race permeated the culture.
The outfits, makeup and style are very much tied to the early 2000s drag scene in Montreal, she said. Now, it’s become a big-budget affair with stoned wigs, elaborate costumes and more expected by audiences.
“I used to do the old type of drag that was more subtle, more calm, more interpretation and performance, so I think it’s a nice point of view,” said Lullaby, who competed and won the third season of Canada’s Drag Race.
“It’s local queens in the show so it’s a local queen budget. It’s really nice to see the reality of it.”
The role of the film’s central drag queen was written for Pellerin, but when he was cast, he didn’t know a ton about drag.
He was faced with the task of becoming a convincing drag queen for audiences well-initiated to the televised drag world via shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Months before shooting started, Pellerin started working with movement coaches to learn to walk in heels, dance convincingly and develop his own femininity and to “develop a sensuality.”
“The big thing was valuing myself through femininity,” said Pellerin. “Because the character, you know, is completely liberated in that matter and values himself through that extravagance and that femininity. I had to develop that and also learn to love it.”
Filming was liberating and invigorating, but as the film’s release approached and he started to see himself in the trailer and in promotional images, he felt uneasy.
He said he felt compelled to make sure people knew that he was playing a character, that it was not actually him, and he wasn’t proud of the feeling.
“I never consider making sure that people know that this is a character,” he said. But, “there’s still an element of what has been instilled in me, and the collective imagination, that there’s something wrong there.
Pellerin said the feeling was surprising. He had felt liberated shooting the film, had friends who were drag queens, consumes drag content and it’s a part of his life.
“It’s probably my own internalized homophobia I still have to deconstruct,” he said.
All audiences can relate, queen says
Lullaby said the film is an important part of sharing the lives of the LGBTQ community, and especially its trans and non-binary members.
“I think it’s important to see a movie like that to understand what is going on inside [and] not just judging people. It’s sad. I think it’s really sad. I saw terrible things being screamed at trans people during the march,” said Lullaby.
“I’m not saying you have to learn to be used to it, but you have to learn that they are human beings and they exist.”
She said she found the film moving, not just for its depiction of drag, but for how it unpacked the complexity of toxic relationships, something she says all audiences can relate to.
“It’s a really good point of view about drag,” she said. “That movie touched me a lot.”
Solo debuts at the Varsity theatre in Toronto on Friday. Audiences can see it in theatres across Canada on Oct. 6.