Pretty Old: Film Review

This heartwarming documentary offers some fresh, new wrinkles in pageantry.

The documentary, playing at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, centers on a senior beauty pageant.

Originally inspired by a picture from a Danish exhibition of prize-winning photojournalism with the caption, “Ms. Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant, Fall River, Massachusetts,” the engaging documentary, Pretty Old is pretty terrific.

Going to the source and face to face with some of those would-be pageant queens in question, this feature by Walter Matteson colorfully and poignantly dispels some age-old perceptions regarding beauty and self-worth after a certain age.

The film — Sarah Jessica Parker is one of its executive producers — struck a crowd-pleasing chord at its Santa Barbara International Film Festival premiere and deserves greater exposure beyond the fest circuit.

Founded over three decades ago by Lenny “Low Price” Kaplan, a Fall River merchant who was looking to do something off the beaten path for a Lions Club annual fundraiser, the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant attracts contestants from their late ‘50s on up well into their ‘80s with its promise of rediscovered glamor, empowering camaraderie and a healthy dose of schmaltz.

Matteson and Trish Govoni’s inobtrusive camera zooms in on four of those contestants from diverse backgrounds vying for the pageant’s 30th anniversary crown, each with a uniquely touching story and rationale for packing a glittering gown and schlepping out to Fall River year after year.

There’s 83-year-old Phyllis Chickett, who lost her husband to Alzheimer’s and had to sit out the previous pageant after suffering the first of two heart attacks; 73-year-old Ida White, a highly philosophical woman residing in the Virgin Islands who reasons that she’s doing the sort of things she had been denied as an African-American girl; 65-year-old Tamara Swihart, a cosmetic surgery-addict and admitted “pageant junkie”; and 67-year-old dance teacher Frances Christian, who competes despite being diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer.

Presiding over it all, with his trusty kazoo in hand is 78-year-old Kaplan, whose little community fundraiser has blossomed into something totally unexpected and quite special — just like those later-in-life contestants and the film that tells their inspiring story.
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production companies: Boss Films, Pretty Matches Prods.,  ?Director: Walter Matteson, Group Effort Films
Screenwriters: Walter Matteson, Josh Alexander ?Executive producers: Sarah Jessica Parker, Alison Benson, Joe Berlinger, Matthew Prinzing

Producers: Walter Matteson, Daniel J. Chalfen, Josh Alexander
Director of photography: Trish Govoni

Music: Kris Kaczor ?Editor: Matthew Prinzing ?Not rated, 87 minutes