Cheerleading is a sport that commands attention. It whips the crowd into a controlled fervor, getting people off their feet and cheering with excitement. Unfortunately, director Zara Hayes’ “Poms” barely manages to do the same with its story about a group of retired women who reclaim their vitality and challenge societal norms by forming a cheerleading squad. Though it aims to be more than just a mashup of “Bring It On” and “Book Club,” the inherently uplifting and endearing facets of its heartfelt sentiments are overtaken by artificial packaging and stale execution.
As a pessimistic New York City transplant, Martha (Diane Keaton) faces her greatest challenge yet: living in the impossibly peppy retirement community of Sun Springs, Ga. The lavish, well-maintained property fosters cheery dispositions and relaxed lifestyles — things a cynical curmudgeon like Martha despises. But her former life in the city was unbearably lonely, so she seeks a drastically different atmosphere. Her advancing age and, more importantly, aggressive terminal cancer has made her surprisingly sentimental about her youth and paths not taken.
Martha is at first reticent to make friends, preferring to cocoon herself in her pre-fab, personality-free home instead of trying to fit in at group exercise and neighborhood get-togethers. But her world begins to change for the better once she meets next-door neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver). Sheryl is Martha’s opposite with her colorful, tight-fitting wardrobe and vivacious free spirit, yet her vigor inspires Martha to rediscover her own.
The pair set out to form a cheerleading club, which is unheard of to their enclave’s small-minded residents, who include the ironically unfriendly president of the welcoming committee, Vicki (Celia Weston). Not only must the newly assembled squad find more members, which they incorrectly assume will be difficult, they must also get competition-ready in a short amount of time. The team is forced to battle their own physical limitations and a few other serious setbacks.
Heartening themes about redefining the notion of family are what give the movie its luster, as well as the idea that self-empowerment has no expiration date. It’s encouraging that screenwriter Shane Atkinson and Hayes, who shares a story by credit, focus primarily on female friendship, though they undermine and underestimate the empathy capacity of another group of women: teen girls. The super seniors’ combative relationship with antagonistic high school cheerleaders, who film their failures and mercilessly mock them, takes center stage as the main conflict. There’s no reason the heroines’ own inner demons couldn’t have driven the plot.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that Atkinson and Hayes never strike a good balance between all the characters in the ensemble. The film fails both in showing them as multi-faceted individuals and in capturing their group dynamics, allowing superficial character traits to define them. Consistently-upbeat Sheryl’s only worry is if the authorities find out her teen grandson Ben (Charlie Tahan) is living with her, but that’s forgotten by act two. The filmmakers become more concerned with an unnecessary romance between Ben and classmate Chloe (Alisha Boe), who betrays her own cheer team to help train his grandma’s squad. It’s a lot of hoop-jumping when a simpler solution would’ve been to eliminate Ben and the rival squad altogether, and make Chloe a visiting character who helps the ladies train.
Sultry Olive (Pam Grier), who tangos her way into the troupe, revives her waning romance with her hubby — but since we didn’t see her struggling with it in the first place, the impact is lessened. Conservative Alice (Rhea Perlman) finds her inner power after her controlling husband dies, but outside of one George Carlin-esque swearword tirade, her character fades into the background. Aerobics enthusiast Ruby (Carol Sutton), yoga instructor Evelyn (Ginny MacColl), and line dancer Phyllis (Patricia French) are dealt short shrift altogether. The lone character afforded a noteworthy performance by the lackluster material is baton-twirling Helen (Phyllis Somerville). Somerville’s small screentime is infused with a palpable, nuanced sense of anguish and anxiety over her ageist, sexist son essentially imprisoning her financially, and then physically after an injury.
For a film that’s supposed to instill confidence in the hearts of its target demographic and beyond, it lacks that same sense of bravery in its storytelling to say something genuinely moving. Time and time again, it falls back on outdated clichés and lazy contrivances. It prefers to follow predictable patterns set by many previous underdog stories, ticking off the expected emotional beats versus doing something radically different to make the emotions feel earned.
Overall, “Poms” isn’t a film that demands the audience’s attention — and that’s a shame given the breadth of skilled, seasoned talent involved. The blueprint for a genuinely inspired, warm-hearted dramedy is indeed there, it’s just that the filmmakers can’t figure out how to properly utilize what they have.