Bo McGuire was a bystander, at first, when his beloved grandmother, the family matriarch he calls “Nanny” died. He was in New York, working on his NYU film degree, far away from his hometown, Hokes Bluff, Alabama, as the drama unfolded. Nanny died without a will, and while nearly everyone in the family agreed that she would want her youngest child, John, to inherit the home in which he already lived, there was one exception. His homophobic older sister, Sharon, went nuclear, determined to take control of the estate and eject her drag queen baby brother from the house.
McGuire did not sit on the sidelines long, working through his family trauma with “Socks on Fire,” his debut feature that makes its North American premiere Sat/10, at the Fort Mason FLIX drive-in as the SFFILM Festival Centerpiece (more info here). A lyrical, sometimes surreal hybrid documentary, McGuire employs home movies, new footage, and re-enactments to stunning effect to spin the saga of a tight-knit family splintered apart when the family matriarch dies. (Read our full guide to SFILM 2021 here.)
“I always felt kind of like an insider and outsider,” McGuire says over Zoom, a few days before traveling to San Francisco to make a live appearance at the drive-in. “Being queer and different and loving Judy Garland was not something that was normal for a boy in Hokes Bluff, Alabama, so I’ve always seen myself that way. In particular, in a Southern family there’s a pecking order and grandchildren are last on the list. It wasn’t personally my battle… I felt removed from it in that way. I couldn’t find a way to help.
“I had all the pain and the grief of it, but I couldn’t overstep Mother. I couldn’t just go tell Aunt Sharon what was what. There’s a line of respect there. That’s sort of why I made the movie, I couldn’t find a way for me to claim this legacy, that was so rightly mine and I felt so close to and possessive of. The only way I could was to make art about it.”
At McGuire’s disposal were hours of VHS tapes recorded when he was a child, records of family holidays and gatherings from when he was a child. For the new footage he shot, he tried to keep his family as much in the dark about what he was doing as possible, even Uncle John, whom he describes as “waiting for a camera, basically, his whole life.” But he didn’t want his kin overthinking what they were doing as the camera rolled. He also admits he was not always sure where he was going with the project.
“I just knew that I wanted to capture as much of this and as many people and places I was scared of losing due to time on camera as possible,” McGuire says.
“Part of writing the film, editing the film was figuring out what it was and from what perspective, so when I say I kept them in the dark. I was also kind of in the dark. A lot of the time, I was just following a notion. I always say Nanny has been executive producing from heaven, this whole time, so I was just following that.”
An actor in drag, Chuck Duck, plays Aunt Sharon as the family nemesis, while other actors play the siblings as youths in reenactments. The strategy was partially out of necessity – there was no way Aunt Sharon was going to take part in this project and the scenes performed before the camera do not exist on any home movie. But McGuire was also taking a wider view of the situation.
“In a way, these people sort of exist in my mind and my imagination and my memories as larger-than-life characters, you know, outside of who they are actually, individually, as human beings. They also are appearing in this landscape of rhinestone Southern-ness.
“So, I also wanted to lean into that and play. I mean, part of me is always upset that I didn’t know Aunt Sharon when she was young. I feel like she and I would have been thick as thieves. I just think that there would be a lot there for us both to love with each other, had we known each other as young people. I wanted to go and create that.”
McGuire, in fact, remembers wanting to go home with Aunt Sharon after family gatherings when he was a little boy. He adored her. His glamorous Uncle John had a busy social life and would flit in and out of gatherings. Also, John, only 16 years older than Bo, had been the baby of the family and now Bo, Nanny’s oldest grandchild was, so there was a competitiveness between them.
“Growing up, John was always too cool for me,” McGuire laughs.
And so, a film that began as the story of how his aunt blew up their family by making moves against his uncle, McGuire realizes now is even more personal than that. Aunt Sharon betrayed far more than her little brother in trying to take that house.
“For me, this film goes in a million different ways in a million different directions all at the same time,” McGuire says. “When it comes down to is I finally realized, throughout the making of it, I was really not necessarily wrestling with Nanny dying, not necessarily wrestling with being a queer person in Alabama. I was really dealing with that little boy who had lost his hero. I was still sort of negotiating that and sort of what I came to, in this film, was a piece of just letting her be both.
“She can be both my hero and my villain, and for me to recognize that I feel like gives me power over that grief of losing her.”
Socks on Fire, part of the 2021 SFFILM festival, plays Sat/10 at 630pm at Fort Mason FLIX drive-in Director Bo McGuire will emcee a live, pre-show drag performance by Rock M. Sakura + FREDDIE. The film will also be available only April 10 to festival passholders. Tickets and more info here.