"I'm here to die," cancer patient Martha (Diane Keaton) announces to a boosterish reception committee as she arrives at the Georgia retirement community where she plans to end her days. Martha is a lifelong single who has accrued little in the way of family or friends. Now, having refused all treatment and polished off her own estate sale, she expects no fireworks (hold that thought, though) from her imminent demise at Sun Springs, a pricey pastel village dotted with semiotically resonant golf carts, water aerobics, and funeral buffets.
That's about as much grim reality as you can expect before POMS, a comedy of senior manners from British director Zara Hayes, shunts you smartly into uplift and good cheer. With barely plausible speed, reclusive Martha succumbs to an unlikely friendship with her free-spirited neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver, channeling Betty White). Unlike her surly grump of a new pal, Sheryl likes a good time (she attends funerals for the free food) and she quickly unearths the fun fact that Martha was, in her day, a whiz-bang cheerleader who never got the chance to perform. Working their way around stiffening joints — and through the forces of reaction,, a.k.a. Vicki (Celia Weston, radiating great gusts of disapproval) — the brand-new bosom buddies follow their bliss by founding a cheerleading club of eight diligently diverse women and steering them into competition with a nubile cheerleading squad from the local high school.
POMS was inspired by photos that Hayes had come across of cheerleading retirees around the world. So it's a real, joyful thing, which the movie honors with an affectionate tone and a bunch of sweet moments. I loved the audition sequence, for example, in which six women liberate themselves from shyness, old bones, and overbearing helicopter relatives, and dance their hearts out. And though Weaver (Animal Kingdom) is playing well below her skill set, she goes full throttle as Sheryl, giving the snotty teen squad as good as she gets climbing into bed with her sick friend in spontaneous solidarity, and mothering the team's teen choreographer, played by a charming Alisha Boe.
Keaton, effortlessly posh and stylish in her custom uniform of boyfriend-chic, is always a pleasure. But the movie's critical flaw is that Keaton's Martha is the only functioning adult in the room. The rest are wrinkled children, cartoon versions of retirement-village seniors, and it's painful to see a team of our most gifted actresses — Weaver and Weston for sure, but also Pam Grier and Phyllis Somerville, none of whom are past their professional prime — playing gallant old broads, dear old things, or cutesy child-women who lack all specificity beyond the sketched-in personality traits that seem to have been flung at them during storyboarding.
Of course POMS isn't meant to be anything but a fantasy in realist clothing. Yet by hitching Martha's imminent death to the innocuous frivolity of a comic cheerleading plot, Hayes and screenwriter Shane Atkinson take on responsibilities they can't follow through on without getting into a tonal and thematic tangle. This is hardly the terrain of Michael Haneke's searing 2012 Amour, but even by the elastic standards of mass-market escapist trifles the creators of POMS might consider the challenges of growing old and confronting death without infantilizing both characters and audience. Martha may be dying, but she's a dying grown-up, which makes it hard to buy the proposition that her fondest bucket-list wish is to fulfill a dream she harbored for a short while in high school. Scene for genial scene POMS is a fitful good time. As a fable of end-of-life empowerment, the movie has all the existential heft of an extended L'Oreal commercial.