The elevator pitch for “Poms” had to have been: “It’s ‘Bring It On’ in an old folks home!” because that’s exactly what it is. The brilliant 2000 cheerleading comedy is the gift that keeps on giving (to the tune of, count ’em, five sequels and a musical), so it makes sense to try and 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 of “Bring it On” writer Jessica Bendinger’s script, which was the essential quality that made that film such a winner.
Shane Atkinson makes his feature screenwriting debut on “Poms,” and director Zara Hayes takes a story by credit as well. It’s a formulaic piece, relying heavily on the fish-out-of-water tale of “Bring It On,” as well as Diane Keaton’s erudite and frazzled star persona. Keaton stars as 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 for all these years.
The cranky, isolationist Martha meets her match in her bubbly and outgoing neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), who is so persistent in her companionship that Martha simply succumbs. Peer pressured to join a club by septuagenarian mean girl Vicki (Celia Weston — 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 is thin and merely serviceable at best, and it often feels like the film has barely been written. 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 some inspiring displays of independence. The friendship between Martha and Sheryl becomes the emotional touchstone of the film, and especially Weaver 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 flippantly informs Vicki, 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.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG-13, for some language/sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Starts May 10 in general release