Cheers!

Diane Keaton ‘brings it on’ in benchmark cheerleading flick

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Poms
Starring Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver
Directed by Zara Hayes
PG-13

Cheerleaders sure are a versatile, adventurous bunch.

Of course, they rah-rah, sis-boom-bah, dance, entertain and perform, at sporting events and competitions. And in the movies, they’ve also sidelined as witches, zombies, ninja warriors, bank robbers, vampires—and—remember Buffy?—vampire slayers. In Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, one grows into a giantess.

“It’s our moment of glory!” proclaims a character in the 1971 cheerleader cheese-fest Satan’s Cheerleaders. “Hail, Satan!”

Poms marks another moment of glory, of sorts, for cheerleader flicks. The first mainstream movie focused on cheerleading grannies, it breaks new ground for the genre with its tale of a group of residents of a retirement community who decide to form a cheer squad.

They’re not witches or vampires or ninjas, just older gals who each have various reasons for picking up a pair of pom-poms at an age when most of their peers—and neighbors—are playing shuffleboard or canasta.

Diane Keaton stars as Martha, the newest resident of Georgia’s Sunshine Springs, a sprawling independent-living complex with picture-perfect swimming pools, hundreds of activities—and lots of rules. Though she’s not officially a grandma, Martha is a bit of a rule-breaker; she’s already decided to break off her cancer treatments, sever ties with her Atlanta physician, and let life’s mortal coil unwind on its own.

Sunshine Springs’ welcome-wagon committee is a bit taken aback when she flatly tells them that she’s come there “to die.”

Martha’s sprightly next-door neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), is a live wire, however, who reignites Martha’s youthful passion for something she gave up long ago: cheerleading. Together they decide to start a group to “bring it on” in an upcoming talent competition…

Keaton has top billing, but it’s Weaver who steals the show. The ever-dependable Australian actress, whose resume includes dozens of TV series and movies (including Silver Linings Playbook, The Disaster Artist, Bird Box and Animal Kingdom) is a 1,000-watt bulb that brightens up every scene in which her character appears—and wisely, she appears a lot. Keaton may have the Oscar (for Annie Hall, 1977), but Weaver gets the laughs.

There are other familiar faces, too, especially for audiences “of a certain age.” Rhea Pearlman (she was Carla on TV’s 1980s sitcom Cheers) is Alice, newly freed from her domineering husband. Pam Grier, the cult “blaxploitation” star of such 1970s fare as Foxy Brown, Coffy and Blacula, plays Olive, who admits her new activities as a cheerleader fulfill some long-repressed fantasies of her hubby.

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Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Diane Keaton & Jacki Weaver

Bruce McGill trades in his roaring chopper from his memorable role as D-Day in Animal House (1978) for a whirring electric golf cart as the community security guard with not a lot to do—except try to keep the crime codes for “rape” and “noise complaint” straight. South Carolina native Celia Weston (who had a recurring role on TV’s Modern Family as Barb Tucker, Cam’s mother) is a natural as Vicki, the Southern-belle foil of Martha and Sheryl.

Poms is obviously geared toward the AARP crowd, but a couple of younger actors (Ozark’s Charlie Tahan, 20, and Alisha Boe, 22, one of the stars of the teen-suicide series 13 Reasons Why) set up a “young love” subplot. It’s a bit of awwwww, cute-kids, added-value for more seasoned audiences—and a calculated push to edge the viewership demo a few clicks “downward.”

Hollywood has discovered that mature viewers buy movie tickets, too, a trend made apparent when The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought in a respectable $46 million at the U.S. box office in 2012. Several years later, Book Club, starring Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen, took in more than $68 million. Those aren’t Avengers numbers by any stretch, but they indicate a market too valuable to neglect.

Director Zara Hayes, making her first feature film after working in the documentary field, keeps things basic and doesn’t ever dazzle, and sometimes the story sags when you want it to soar. You really yearn for these gyrating grannies to bust out, cut loose and fly. They do, mostly, but I kept wishing there was a bit more rah to go with the sis-boom-bah.

But the movie’s heart is in the right place. It’s funny, sweet—sometimes bittersweet—and it has an uplifting message about teamwork, friendship and not letting age be a barrier, of any kind.

The Sunshine Springs squad performs their rousing finale on a stage with big, illuminated letters that spell out “Dance” and “Cheer.” Their bit—to a hip-hop version of “The Clapping Song”—makes everyone do just that, in the audience and beyond, in the viral, internet world.

And it will probably make you want to do that, too. Shake your poms and hoist your popcorn. These age-defying cheerleaders are a cause for celebration—because they’re not devils, vampires or giants, just ordinary women enjoying life and doing their thing.

Everyone can cheer for that, right?

Hail, Keaton!

In theaters May 10, 2019

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