You know those videos that make the rounds online showing a grandma captured unawares in her kitchen getting down with her proverbial bad self? It’s the kind of video that makes you smile at first, but by the end you’re not sure if grandma is the hero or the butt of a joke. The new Diane Keaton starrer Poms is basically the feature film equivalent of that, endlessly held back by a script that doesn’t do the work to create real characters and as a result pulls off an astonishing feat: making screen legends like Keaton, Pam Grier and Rhea Perlman look like sad, pitiful old ladies.
Billed as an uplifting tale about the bonds of women in their golden years, the pic follows an upstart cheerleading squad in a retirement community. Documentary filmmaker Zara Hayes directs, taking on her first narrative feature, and writer Shane Atkinson pens the script in his first feature-length credit. Poms is equal parts boring and infuriating, especially when you consider the actresses made to perform caricatures of old age. The film revolves around one-dimensional characters, and that particular dimension amounts to “look, they’re old and they can still…daaaance!” It lands as voyeuristic condescension and flattens the presumably full lives of women elders into hollow inspiration fodder.
Poms follows Martha (Keaton) as she leaves New York and moves South to a retirement community called Sun Springs. We learn early on in the pic that she has cancer and is refusing treatment, but we are not told why. We also don’t know why she’s leaving the city for this particular spot in the South.
With an opening wide shot of a downtown cityscape and a one-off voiceover via which we learn Martha never had kids and she’s selling all her stuff, we’re off on a narrative journey that is about conveniently forcing the protagonist and her eventual retirement community buddies into unlikely forgone conclusions — like the premise of the movie itself: old women cheerleading. By the time we learn Martha’s motivation for taking up cheerleading in the film’s first third — a dream of her youth that she had to put off to take care of a sick mother — we know 90 percent of what we’re going to learn about the main character.
With the script’s pile-on of girl-power clichés that appear like clockwork from start to finish, it’s — unsurprisingly — the performances that form the bulk of what works about the pic. The most endearing thing about Martha is Keaton herself, who effortlessly pulls off a sort of Women’s Studies professor flair with messy but gorgeous gray tresses, loose-fitting jeans and Oxford shirts (the familiar Keaton uniform). She even manages to make the Oxford shirt part of the bedazzled cheerleading uniform of the Poms. And there’s a highly gif-able moment where Martha chants “cunnilingus!” to her fellow cheerleaders.
Similarly, another highlight of the film is its version of The Golden Girls‘ Blanche Devereaux, Sheryl, played with dexterity by veteran Aussie character actor Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook). A substitute teacher with quick sass and fierce loyalty to the people she loves, she injects the most humor and believability of any of the castmembers.
The biggest head-scratcher in a movie that aims to be an inspiring tale about aging women moving their bodies is the painful choreography; this film even makes Grier’s dancing look bad — Pam “Foxy Brown” Grier, whose lithe yet fierce physique has been setting movie screens on fire since the 1970s. No one is expecting a re-enactment of Bring It On — although one particularly nimble Pom member does do the splits — but if you’re going to make a movie about a group of “unlikely” cheerleaders, the mechanics have to be convincing or at least endearing. Neither is the case here. At a certain point, there’s a dance move we’re told becomes a viral sensation. It’s basically Keaton and the squad flapping their arms and doing everything in their power to isolate the movement in their upper bodies and avoid gyrating their hips, even though that would be the anatomical tendency of a person with a spine whose arms are in said position. You can just hear the note, “Please, don’t let them twerk. Anything but twerking!”
To watch Poms is to be acutely aware of how, even in today’s ever-changing landscape, few complex character roles exist for women of a certain age in Hollywood. From veterans like Keaton and Grier to newcomers like Dorothy Steel, who made her feature film debut in none other than Black Panther and started acting at the age of 88, there’s a full roster of talent in this age group that deserves to be taken seriously. These women have earned their credits for decades, won Oscars and survived a cutthroat industry only to be cast in films that barely make use of their hard-won skills. And that’s not something waving gold pom-poms around can fix.
Production companies: Sierra/Affinity, Mad as Birds, Rose Pictures, Entertainment One
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Celia Weston, Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Bruce Mcgill, Alisha Boe, Charlie Tahan, Phyllis Somerville, Patricia French, Ginny Maccoll, Carol Sutton
Director: Zara Hayes
Screenwriter: Shane Atkinson
Executive producers: Nick Meyer, Marc Schaberg, Will Greenfield, Diane Keaton Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson
Producers: Kelly McCormick, Alex Saks, Andy Evans, Ade Shannon, Celyn Jones, Sean Marley Rose Ganguzza
Music: Deborah Lurie
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Celine Diano
Choreographer: Marguerite Derricks
Editor: Annette Davey
Costumer designer: Amanda Ford
Rated PG-13, 91 minutes