Lifetime Review: 'Pom Poms and Payback'
Three cheerleaders deal with heartache and an unstable coach in this disastrous Lifetime teen drama.
With her senior year nearing a close, Sharlene Davenport (Shaylaren Hilton) is on top of the world alongside her friends Jessie and Annabelle (Le'Priesh Roman and Jazlyn Nicolette Sward). But that joy turns to pain the night of the Senior Ball when all three girls are seemingly betrayed by their boyfriends. Devastated and bitter, the girls turn to their cheer coach Denise Evergreen (Emily Killian) for advice. Convinced by Denise that getting back at their boyfriends will do their broken hearts good, Sharlene and her friends put their heads together to plan the perfect revenge.
But unbeknownst to these scorned cheerleaders, there's more to the story than meets the eye. Soon after completing their revenge mission, the girls come to realize that their boyfriends may have been set up to look like backstabbers. They also begin to suspect someone close to them is responsible for the ploy: Coach Evergreen. Working together, the friends investigate to gather proof and figure out why their coach would want to ruin their lives. Meanwhile, Denise has more plans in the making and isn't about to let anyone stop her from having her own revenge...
While Fear the Cheer 2021 was near the top of the pyramid with Killer Cheer Mom, the marathon slips and falls to the bottom with Pom Poms and Payback. Despite having a scrumptiously Lifetimey title and being directed by Lifetime veteran Doug Campbell, this teen drama about boyfriend troubles and a crazy cheer coach doesn't have the same fire as something like Deadly Mile High Club. I bring that movie up not only because it was also directed by Campbell, but because it succeeds at being what Pom Poms and Payback tries and fails to be: an intentionally over-the-top Lifetime thriller. While Deadly Mile High Club has strong comedic timing and actors who embrace the wackiness, Pom Poms and Payback has flat comedy and stale performances. While Deadly Mile High Club has a streamlined story that knows how to keep you engaged, Pom Poms and Payback's plot meanders about and squanders every opportunity to liven things up. For all the issues I had with Killer Cheer Mom, at least it didn't bore me as much as this movie did.
The biggest problem with Pom Poms and Payback's story is how it bounces all over the place. After a foreshadowing cold open, the movie's first 20-so minutes quickly introduce us to the three cheerleader protagonists and their individual relationships and personalities. Exposition-heavy dialogue and shaky acting from the people playing Sharlene, Jessie, and Annabelle abound throughout these 20-odd minutes. The latter sticks around throughout the film's entirety, with Jazlyn Nicolette Sward getting dealt the worst hand of having to play whiny ditz Annabelle. The only time I liked Annabelle was when she was accurately calling Sharlene and Jessie's sleuthing stupid and pointless. The movie devotes so much time to the girls' asinine Nancy Drew schtick that little room is left for anything else.
The whole thing about the girls getting revenge on their "traitorous" boyfriends only lasts one brief Disney Channel-esque montage, with the aftermath of the girls realizing they were wrong left as a footnote. It would've been more interesting to have the revenge pranks run in tandem with Coach Evergreen's more serious schemes, allowing the two to intersect in dramatic ways. Instead, we're stuck watching three uninteresting cheerleaders play detective--and they wind up doing a pretty sucky job at it. One particularly idiotic investigative sequence has Jessie being exceptionally careless in how she takes her sweet time examining evidence. She only avoids getting caught thanks to another character being impossibly slow in walking over to her. The fact that the girls continue investigating long after they've already gathered enough incriminating evidence to take to the police says it all about how boneheaded they are.
WARNING: Spoilers Below
That's not to say the main adult players of Pom Poms and Payback are any better. Emily Killian's performance as the deranged Coach Evergreen is lukewarm at best and she isn't helped by Denise Evergreen being an underwhelming antagonist. Her plan to get revenge on Sharlene's mother Marcia is so overly complicated and convoluted that it makes my head spin. She says to herself at one point that she has other plans for the girls after wrecking their relationships. But apart from her attempt to kill Sharlene and Jessie during the climax, she doesn't do anything else to the girls throughout the movie's middle act. She spends more time focusing her vengeful energy right on Marcia, and even then, all she does is get her fired and plot to steal her house. It's not thrilling and it hardly sounds like some grand conspiracy requiring the 20 years of planning Denise rants about at one point.
If I had the script to rewrite, I would erase the whole "revenge by proxy" angle of Denise's plan. Instead, Denise/Lila would just be a psychotically bitter woman whose sister was bullied to death by cheerleaders, driving her to become a cheer coach in adulthood to take her resentment out on girls who remind her of Sally's tormentors. It would not only make her a more compelling villainess who aligns with the film's tone, but it would consequently make Marcia Davenport a likable character. While she gave some fantastic emotional deliveries in Just What the Doctor Ordered, Carrie Schroeder isn't at her best here. During the big moment when Marcia realizes Denise is actually Sally Crumb's sister Lila and recalls how her bullying drove Sally to kill herself, Schroeder doesn't convey Marcia's supposed remorse all that well. There are tears, but her stilted delivery as Marcia sings the same song she used to mock Sally kills the mood.
And that's not even getting into Marcia's "apology" to Lila before the big climax. It's less "what I did was horrible, but my daughter and her friends had nothing to do with that" and more "yeah, I kinda bullied your sister to death, but she really was a crazy psycho, so it's not that big a deal!" As awful as Lila was to go after a bunch of innocent teens, you can't blame her for being upset at Marcia's attempts to mitigate her horrific actions. It gets worse when it turns out that Lila was responsible for the school fire Sally was accused of starting, meaning Sally had done absolutely nothing to deserve Marcia's maltreatment. This leads into an overextended climax that's not all that thrilling (it's mostly just Lila chasing Marcia around the school) and ends with a woozily shot scene of Sharlene flipping her way across the school football field to knock Lila unconscious. I'm not even joking, that's literally how Lila's defeat plays out. It's just as ridiculous as I made it sound. But at least the jarring camerawork for the scene provides some company to the weird sliding transition shots in the "WTF Editing Choices" department.
Another awful character whose actions need to be discussed within the Spoiler section: Shannon Skiles's Theresa Desmond, who starts out your average snobby high school girl type. She's established as Sharlene's rival of sorts and is introduced making out with Sharlene's boyfriend Jason and bragging to her about it. She's later revealed to have been a pawn in Lila's game, having been bribed by the coach to kiss Jason after he was roofied. The fact that Theresa sexually assaulted Jason is never addressed; not even Sharlene is all that upset when she finds out what Theresa did. Not only that, but Theresa gets some very egregious off-screen "character development" where Annabelle tells Sharlene that Theresa actually admires her and wants to be friends. It's a characterization turnabout so fast, you might need a Dramamine afterward.
At least the supporting cast has a few Lifetime-familiar actors that give decent performances. Cheer Camp Killer's Christian Seavey is moderately funny and lowkey sympathetic as Jessie's super awkward/nerdy boyfriend Roger while Murder in the Vineyard's Matthew Erick White is consistently likable as Sharlene's boyfriend Jason--the most sympathetic of the main protagonists' boyfriends. Making Roger and Jason even more sympathetic is how Jessie and Sharlene barely apologize for not trusting them and pulling mean-spirited pranks on them in retaliation. Jessie tries to use the old "it was just a misunderstanding" ploy while Sharlene is never shown apologizing at all. Taking into consideration the truth behind Jason's "betrayal" and the implications of how no one takes the revelation all that seriously, the lack of a proper apology from Sharlene to Jason is appalling. And the way the film wraps up these relationship woes is like rubbing salt over a scraped knee.
It's downright tragic how much potential was wasted with Pom Poms and Payback. Not only is the script rife with entertaining plot avenues that go unexplored, but that delectable title has the dishonor of being attached to a clunky mess of a movie. The pacing is all over the place, the story is boring and unfocused, the teen heroines are dumb and annoying, and the acting is almost universally bland. While Deadly Mile High Club soars in terms of succulent drama, Pom Poms and Payback crashes harder than a high-strung cheerleader having a nervous breakdown right before the big game.
Score: 2 out of 10 home equity loans.