The message that “you’re never too old to fulfill your dreams” itself seems quite hoary when delivered as clumsily as it is in a movie like “Poms.” Though it wants to uplift us by celebrating the spirit of women of a certain age, the execution is so poor that it ends up depressing us instead. (The British seem able to pull off this kind of thing far better.)
That’s despite the presence of Diane Keaton, who gives the flimsy material everything she has as Martha, a crusty, solitary New Yorker who sells off all her belongings after receiving a cancer diagnosis and goes off to a Georgia retirement community to die. She’s appalled by the cheeriness of the place, presided over by self-proclaimed queen of the walk Vicki (Celia Weston), and is initially irritated by her intrusive next-door neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver). But she quickly grows fond of the gregarious buttinski, and as she unpacks finds what is quickly revealed as her personal Rosebud—an old cheerleading costume that brings back memories of how she had to leave the squad to care for her ailing mother.
With a little prodding from Sheryl, she decides to form a cheerleading club at Sun Springs, as the community is called, much to the chagrin of sourpuss “southern belle” Vicki. She and Sheryl begin holding auditions for members, and a bunch of eccentric golden girls eventually signs up. They include mousy Alice (Rhea Perlman), whose disapproving husband’s prohibition is removed by his convenient death; Olive (Pam Grier), a tango dancer whose husband proves more receptive to her dancing; aerobics lover Ruby (Carol Sutton); yoga master Evelyn (Ginny MacColl); baton-twirler Helen (Phyllis Somerville); and line specialist Phyllis (Patricia French). But with the exception of Helen, who has to deal with a chauvinist son (David Maldonado) who’s also decided to be her “protector” (read, jailer), none of them gets much in the way of character; each is simply a walking stereotype, frequently with a “naughty” quality added.
The plot employs cliché after cliché to set up conflicts and obstacles. Vicki is a constant irritant, of course, refusing the girls rehearsal space. And when Sheryl responds by securing them a gig at a pep rally at the high school where she’s a (supremely bad) substitute teacher, their bumbling routine spawns an internet video that goes viral, bringing Chloe (Alisha Boe), one of the school’s repentant cheerleaders, on as a coach who whips them into shape. Sheryl’s geeky grandson (Charlie Tahan) not only becomes the club’s D.J., but his infatuation with Chloe turns into something more. And the squad impulsively decides to enter a competition where they can strut their stuff and become a web sensation. And lurking in the background, of course, is Martha’s illness, and the end she prepares for by watching some TV funeral commercials that are meant to be hilarious but fall flat, though they do provide a limp “triumph in the face of tears” twist in the end.
There are some bright spots in “Poms.” Despite the fact that Keaton is topbilled and milks the part for all it’s worth, it’s Weaver who really carries the picture as the sex-crazed, blunt-talking Sheryl. Both of the actresses mug furiously, as does virtually everybody in the cast—there are more reaction shots here than in a movie with a lovable dog (happily, one cliché omitted here), but without them the mixture of comedy and sentiment would be truly insufferable. Grier, Perlman and Somerville each has a moment or two, Bruce McGill is amusing as the Sun Springs security director, and Boe and Tahan are pleasant enough as the youngsters in the group.
But there are plenty of low points on the other end of the spectrum as well: the characters played by Weston and Maldonado, for example, as well as the dreadful caricature required of Dorothy Steel as Doris, McGill’s decrepit deputy, or the bug-eyed intensity of Jessica Roth as a competition official (who really should have been instructed to tone it down). Much of this can be chalked up to the lackadaisical direction by Zara Hayes, a documentarian making her first fiction film; the bland cinematography of Tim Orr; and the flaccid editing by Annette Davey.
As much as one might appreciate the good intentions behind a movie like “Poms,” you’re likely to come out of it wondering why such talented actress as Keaton, Weaver, and their comrades have been forced to struggle to breathe some life into such inferior material. They deserve better, as so does the audience.