In 2012, the late disability rights activist Stella Young coined a phrase, "inspiration porn," that has become a significant phrase within the culture of disability and in the representation of disability in the media. Simplified, "inspiration porn" refers to portrayal of disabled people as inspirational solely on the basis of their disabilities.
In case you're wondering, "inspiration porn" is considered offensive within the disability community.
I thought about "inspiration porn" often while watching Poms, the Diane Keaton starrer centered around Martha, a retired New York teacher who opts out of cancer treatments in favor of a rather quaint Georgia retirement community where plans to die peacefully and alone.
There's no question that Poms is aiming squarely for the Mother's Day weekend box-office, so firmly pro-aging is its subject matter and so sickeningly saccharine is its messaging. It's a good-hearted film, a desperately good-hearted film that works with an almost feverish desperation to be a feel good, audience pleasing cinematic experience. If audience response at the promo screening I attended is any indication, Poms may even be successful at snagging those coveted box-office bucks from those broken hipsters.
Everyone else? Meh.
It's not so much that Poms errs on the side of "inspiration porn" but, in fact, the film has caused me to coin a more slightly depraved variation on Young's widely embraced phraseology - "humiliation porn."
Rather than being inspired by this intentionally motley crew of senior adults turned swingin' cheerleaders, Poms takes us a notch lower and asks us to experience and understand their suffering and, in turn, to be inspired by their humiliations. Oh sure, Poms gives these ladies their moments in the spotlight and ultimately their shining successes, but there's a whole lot of suffering and humiliation along the way.
It's kind of like when we sit at our desk and watch a video of a 300-lb. runner crossing the finish line at a marathon. Are we really inspired because of their achievement? Or are we inspired because of how much we imagine they suffered for that achievement?
It's not long after Martha arrives at this residential community where you're expected to either join a club or start your own that she unites with Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), her much more free-spirited neighbor next door, to start a cheerleading club as a way to exorcise some old childhood demons. The squad of misfits and outcasts includes Rhea Perlman's Alice, a long-sheltered spouse who takes advantage of a sudden change in circumstances to join the gals, along with Pam Grier's Olive, Phyllis Somerville's Helen, Carol Sutton's Ruby and a host of others with each fitting nicely within the cliche' ridden script co-penned by director Zara Hayes with Shane Atkinson.
There are faux obstacles to deal with, of course, including Celia Weston's southern debutante in search of a ball and Bruce McGill's cartoonish yet fun turn as the community's head of security. Despite being woefully under-utilized, Dorothy Steel's turn as Dorris is absolutely one of the film's highlights.
For a film that seems almost desperate to elicit feel good vibes, the presence of a desperate to become viral video won't necessarily be surprising nor will the involvement in said video of a local high school cheerleading squad be even remotely surprising. You sure as heck won't be surprised that one of those cheerleaders turns out to have a heart of gold mixed with unresolved grandparent issues.
Poms checks the boxes of nearly every must have element one would expect from such an "It's never too late!" type of film.
Again, it's remarkably feel good. It's just not very sincere and certainly not very substantial.
The good news is that Hayes has assembled an absolutely stand-out ensemble cast for such a mediocre story that it would be practically impossible for the film to actually fail.
Poms doesn't fail. It really doesn't and that's practically miraculous because the pacing is nearly constantly off and the script is so utterly awkward that it's a master class in acting that anyone can actually make sense of it all.
When Keaton and Weaver are riffing off one another, Poms is at its best. Otherwise saddled with a character who increasingly pays a physical price for opting out of her cancer treatments, Keaton's Martha is most alive and engaging when Weaver's Sheryl practically forces her way into Martha's life. The two of them are a blast together, a nice contrast to the film's obsession with Martha's frequent bent over trips to the toilet bowl and her increasingly lame efforts to conceal her illness from the others.
The real highlight here, however, has to be Jacki Weaver, the acclaimed Australian character actress with two Academy Award nominations to her name who seldom tackles this kind of role and is clearly having a lot of fun doing it. Weaver practically wills this film into watchability on her own and, fortunately for all of us, she takes along the rest of her ensemble a good majority of the time.
Charlie Tahan makes the most that he can as a grandson secretly, but not so secretly, living within the community while Alisha Boe has a nice turn as a younger cheerleader who decides to help out this truly senior squad.
Despite having a ton of misgivings about Poms and finding its "humiliation porn" elements distasteful at best, the truth is that there's such a good-hearted vibe that ultimately runs throughout the film that it would be incredibly unfair to not acknowledge that the film is, somewhat surprisingly, actually rather enjoyable at times. I'm guessing that senior adults, in particular, will find much to appreciate here and that may very well make it a popular choice for the upcoming Mother's Day weekend.
Poms is ultimately a decent film that should have been a much better film. It's a film that doesn't ever live up to the quality of its cast and at times it's so poorly paced and unfunny that you can't help but cringe. Other times, however, that golden heart shines through and the Keaton/Weaver riffing gets started and all those cinematic faux pas are forgiven. With a cast capable of so much more, Poms can't help but be considered disappointing. However, with a cast this so incredibly capable even a bad time is still a pretty good time.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic