The pitch for “Poms” likely was: “It’s ‘Bring It On’ in an old folks home!” Because that’s exactly what it is.
The 2000 cheerleading comedy is the gift that keeps on giving (to the tune of five sequels), so it makes sense to try to re-create that magic by mapping the formula onto something like a Diane Keaton vehicle. But while “Poms” ekes out a few authentically moving moments, it lacks the acidic wittiness that made “Bring it On” such a winner.
Shane Atkinson makes his screenwriting debut on “Poms,” with director Zara Hayes (a documentarian making her first feature) getting a “story by” credit. It’s a formulaic piece, relying heavily on a fish-out-of-water motif as well as Keaton’s erudite and frazzled star persona. She’s Martha, a single, childless woman in her 70s who moves from New York City to a Georgia senior living community. She has a dire cancer diagnosis she’s decided to ignore, as well as a repressed dream of cheerleading, symbolized by the high school uniform she’s held onto.
The cranky, isolationist Martha meets her match in her bubbly and outgoing neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver, “Silver Linings Playbook”), who is so persistent in her companionship that Martha simply succumbs. Peer-pressured to join a club by septuagenarian mean girl Vicki (Celia Weston from TV’s “American Horror Story,” the only performer to nail the necessary wackiness, yet with wit), Martha convinces Sheryl and a few other women to join her in a cheerleading club.
Training montages, interpersonal feuds and viral videos ensue as they chase their dream of competing in a prestigious cheer competition.
The story and plotting are thin and merely serviceable at best. We know almost nothing about Martha aside from her prickly personality and secret illness. So it’s hard to follow her emotional transitions, which turn on a dime and feel unearned. Much like a cheerleading routine, the story hits every expected beat, but it rings hollow.
Atkinson and Hayes do manage to achieve a few touching moments and even some inspiring displays of independence. The friendship between Martha and Sheryl becomes the emotional touchstone of the film, and Weaver, especially, helps carry the heart of the relationship. There’s even an undercurrent of rebellion in their cheering, bucking the prescribed behavior of what older women “should” do and what the prissy Vicki deems an acceptable pastime. The group refuses to be shamed, and even stands up to the controlling men in their lives.
One area where “Poms” surprises is in its forthright and funny treatment of death. “I’m just here to die,” Martha informs Vicki flippantly, who reminds her to aim higher than that. In a place where death is palpable and frequent, there’s a certain amount of gallows humor among the inhabitants of the community. While the fear of death remains, it’s not something that will ever stop these gals from doing what they want. Why worry about dying when you can spend your time dancing?
Although “Poms” is an imperfect package, one can’t help but take the message to heart.