There is something to be said for earnest films with unabashedly big hearts. They may frequently lapse into clichés, their plot trajectories may follow the predictable straight-and-narrow, their scripts may not even allow many of their characters to rise above sketch-like archetypes, but none of that proves particularly detrimental when what's on the screen entertains, comforts, avoids insulting one's intelligence, and makes the viewer feel good for an hour and a half. "Poms" is one such simple, undemanding cinematic pleasure, a high-spirited underdog comedy with a bittersweet center.
As in 2018's wonderful "Book Club
" (released this same second week in May a year earlier), Diane Keaton leads a cast largely made up of actors over the age of 60 in a picture treating them with the respect, understanding and vibrancy they deserve. Unlike "Book Club," "Poms" affords fewer juicy roles to its leading ladies; while it's a treat to see winning performers such as Pam Grier (2011's "Larry Crowne
") and Rhea Perlman (2012's "The Sessions
") headlining a studio release, they are underutilized in Shane Atkinson's screenplay, window dressing to the core relationship formed between Keaton's Martha, new arrival to Georgia's Sun Springs retirement community, and Jacki Weaver's Sheryl, her cheerful, initially boundary-overstepping next-door neighbor. Facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, New Yorker Martha has sold most of her possessions, moving to a place where she hopes she can spend the rest of her days in peace and quiet. Reality, alas, does not match this expectation. Told by queen bee of the welcoming committee Vicki (Celia Weston), all Sun Springs residents are required to join at least one club. When none appeal to Martha, she opts to start her own, recruiting Sheryl and seven other retirees to form a cheerleading squad. "Who will you be cheering?" a skeptical Vicki asks. "Ourselves," Martha replies.
Give credit where credit is due: "Poms," directed by Zara Hayes, passes the Bechdel Test without even seeming to try. Here is a film populated almost entirely by women and rarely does the topic of men ever come up. For these characters with decades of life experience behind them, they are too busy finally living for themselves. One can easily guess where things are going when Martha concocts the idea of leading a cheerleading club, spurred by her reminiscences of the high school squad she had to drop out of after her mother got sick. There will be a comedic auditions montage. The ragtag members will be uncoordinated at first and early practices discouraging. Busybody Vicki will do everything in her power to thwart their plans. As the Senior Showcase where they plan to premiere their routine looms, Martha will try to hide her failing health from her new friends. There will be truths told, adversities faced, and a third-act competition where the Sun Springs cheerleaders will either sink or swim. Indeed, just about every beat will be telegraphed by well-versed viewers. When done well and with ample sincerity, though, there can be a certain cozy contentment in watching a story more concerned with sharing its soul with audiences than subverting convention.
"Poms" is certainly slight and not very deep, but there are two exceptions: the lovely performances of Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver (2018's "Life of the Party
"), who bring a dignified honesty and poignance to their bond as new best friends Martha and Sheryl. When the truth about her health is revealed and Martha confides in Sheryl that she's scared, it is a moment of pure, heart-aching transcendence between two characters whose relationship strikes as anything but manufactured. Offsetting these sobering interludes is humor both irreverent and likably corny, and inspiring messages of sportsmanship, self-worth, and following one's dream that more or less make this a senior-citizen spin on "Bring It On
." It's a concept which innately speaks to this writer's essence.