There’s no arguing the preternatural coolness of Geena Davis — a fact celebrated in self-conscious fashion by “Don’t Talk to Irene,” a familiar type of coming-of-age film whose most distinguishing feature is the presence of the actress as the imaginary god of a heavyset 13-year-old girl. Davis’ participation brings a measure of wink-wink weirdness to writer-director Pat Mills’ feature, which plays by the kooky indie rules in championing individuality and standing up for ones’ self. Even when the film’s eccentricities feel too choreographed, it manages to deliver its preordained uplift with good-humored charm.
In a northern Toronto suburb described by Davis as the most insignificant geographic region in North America (and “the shitty plaza capital of the world”), overweight teen Irene (Michelle McLeod) spends her days rummaging through dumpsters and spying on the high-school cheerleading squad she desperately wants to join. Given her size, that aspiration is scoffed at, both by her mom Lydia (Anastasia Phillips) — a former cheer captain who gave birth to Irene at 16, and now drives a limo to support them both — and by her classmates. When Irene comes to school one day dressed in a homemade uniform, cruel bully Sarah (Aviva Mongillo) plays a nasty prank on her that gets them both suspended, and stuck performing community service at the adjacent retirement home.
Concealing that situation from her mother, Irene finds herself suffering the slings and arrows of Sarah and her boyfriend while also coping with elderly residents even more miserable than she is, including profane, horny Ruth (Deborah Grover) and despondent, vodka-craving Chuck (Bruce Gray). Inspiration strikes, however, when she gets the idea to mold her aged compatriots into a cheerleading squad, all so they can appear on a TV talent show. The home’s manager (Scott Thompson) begrudgingly agrees, and before long, Irene is using early-’90s dance tracks and routines to bring new meaning to the retirees’ lives. And naturally they, in turn, begin teaching her how to believe in herself and fight back — sometimes literally — against those who say she can’t achieve her dreams.
Amid the ensuing ups and downs, Irene is buoyed by Davis, who speaks to her as an encouraging deity via a poster of ‘A League of Their Own’ that hangs above her bed. This further establishes that Irene is more than a bit “off,” as many others freely note in exchanges punctuated by amusingly random and dirty one-liners. Like the heroine of last year’s “Patti Cake$,” Irene’s weight is the attribute that makes her seem unlikely to realize her ambition, as well as the thing that ultimately underscores her overarching uniqueness. As epitomized by a bookending caterpillar-butterfly analogy, “Don’t Talk to Irene” doesn’t do much to reinvent that rote scenario; rather, it gussies it up with lots of idiosyncratic personality. Here that also comes in the form of Irene’s transgender friend Tesh (Andy Reid), who soon joins the motley cheer team.
Paul Sarossy’s cinematography coats the action in bright hues, and Erica Procunier’s score (aided by some cheesy pop hits, such as Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain”) is similarly upbeat. Though there are no real surprises to be found along the way to the film’s conclusion, McLeod’s turn as the bizarre yet indefatigable Irene helps sell the film’s misfit-makes-good sentimentality. So too does Davis, who proves an entertaining disembodied voice of reason, whether she’s relating to Irene’s girth-related insecurities by discussing her own awkward teen feelings about her height, or emboldening the girl to embrace her defiant outlaw spirit with references to “Thelma and Louise.”