Even if you’ve never seen a movie before, you will know where “Poms” is going because of the big foreshadowing spotlight it shines on every single development. So, do not expect any surprises. Just consider “Poms,” about a retirement community cheerleading squad, a delivery system for some vague message about empowerment and sisterhood, as resilient as its cute golden agers, despite some unsettling “jokes” about blackmail, rape, elder abuse, and, kind of, murder.
Martha (Diane Keaton) has signs saying “Everything must go” and “Estate Sale” next to the price-tagged 40-years accumulation of stuff she is getting rid of, including an array of teacher-gift cutesy mugs, one that says “Don’t Make Me Use My Teacher Voice.” After the sale she packs up what’s left, cancels her upcoming appointments for chemotherapy, and drives to a relentlessly cheery retirement community in sunny Georgia. Its welcome sign says, “The time of your life for the rest of your life,” people wear pastels and ride everywhere in golf carts, they all wave to everyone who passes by, and all residents are required to join at least one club of the more than a hundred ranging from water aerobics to Southern Belles.
“I’m just here to die,” Martha says with some grim humor. She has no interest in clubs, pastels, waving, or making friends. She rebuffs offers from her outspoken new neighbor Sheryl (Jacki Weaver) and even calls the local security guard (Bruce McGill) to complain about Sheryl’s nosy poker party. But Sheryl finds Martha’s old cheerleader uniform and asks to borrow it for her J-Date profile picture. Martha explains that she made the squad but never got to cheer because she had to care for her ailing mother. So why not start a cheerleading squad now? “Who will you cheer for?” asks the resident mean girl (Celia Weston). Martha’s answer: “Ourselves!”
And so there’s the try-out montage, the practice montage, the embarrassing viral video, the family member who objects, the husband who objects, the nay-sayers who use terms like “age-appropriate,” the performance at a high school pep rally where “seniors” means two very different things, and the big show. Documentary director Zara Hayes brings a good eye for detail to her first feature and keeps things moving briskly.
This cast of old pros may not be up to flips and basket catches, but they keep things lively. Keaton is as radiant as ever and Weaver is clearly having a blast. Rhea Perlman is slyly funny as a woman who begins to flourish after the death of her controlling, golf-obsessed husband (though the jokes about whether she killed him are not actually funny), and Pam Grier is warm and lovely as a character who’s happy to have an excuse to shake those pom-poms, with a husband who is very happy to see her in her exercise clothes. The main cast does far better than the script in conveying both a sense of sisterhood, and the exquisite poignancy of the friendships that bloom as the end of life approaches—when all you need to have in common is a commitment to cherishing the good times and being there for each other in the bad times. And that is something to cheer for.