Queen Bees a funny, poignant rom-com set in a posh elder-care facility, boasting a remarkable cast of aged A-listers, who carry the gentle script and deliver a tender end of life love story.
Helen Wilson (Ellen Burstyn, 88) is a retired school-teacher, a former social-justice-warrior. When she was widowed, she withdrew from life, content with her memories and the home she and her husband built. Her headstrong daughter Laura (Elizabeth Mitchell) and grandson Peter (Matthew Barnes) are predictably concerned that she has become forgetful. They want her to sell her home and move to Pine Grove, a luxury assisted-living facility, which she refuses to consider. But when she locks herself out of the house with a saucepan on the stove, setting the kitchen on fire, she agrees to go there for a month while her house is repaired.
At the outset she refuses to join in any of the activities, swimming, karaoke, bridge, power-walking and prefers to dine alone. She is even more put out when she inadvertently sits to eat at a table claimed by the Queen Bees who include Janet (Jane Curtin, 73), Margot (Ann-Margret, 80) and Sally (Loretta Devine, 71). Ruled by the bad-tempered Janet, they are the resident mean-girls terrorising the other residents. Janet seems to feel particularly threatened by Helen and goes out of her way to make life unpleasant for her – but Helen is stroppy and gives as good as she gets, upsetting the staff who will do anything to keep peace.
As is common in elder facilities, women far outnumber the men and when a dashing new man, Arthur (Christopher Lloyd, 82) arrives, the ladies vie for his attention, especially Margot, who’s outlived five husbands. When another new man, Dan (James Caan, 81) turns up, he only has eyes for Helen. And she finds herself falling for him. And finds her friendship with Sally and Margot have eased her longing to return home. She finds herself enjoying life at Pine Grove.
But of course, the course of true love never runs smoothly, with meddlers, saboteurs and well-meaning loved ones getting in the way. And while much of the story would easily translate to a more youthful cast, it also delves into the realities of ageing. The details echo stories I’ve heard from older friends who’ve opted to live in a retirement village – the cliques, the jealous wives, the dearth of men, the lack of attention from family and the inevitable loss of friends who succumb to the ravages of old age.
The stellar cast seem to slip easily into their roles – the script deals so very realistically with the both the difficulties and the simple pleasures of old age. Especially for well-off retirees who have the luxury of opting for a place like Pine Grove. These are not the people we met in Nomadland.
But this movie has no agenda. Director Michael Lembeck plays it as a straight-up rom-com that happens to have a geriatric cast, set in a geriatric residence. As such, I’d consider it pretty average.
But what sets Queen Bees apart is the exploration of elder issues – and the cast’s honest portrayal of ageing. Margot/Ann-Margret is still beautiful, red hair, bright colours, vivacious – but holding onto that with every ounce of her being. Sally/Loretta Devine still embodies the bodacious Black woman treasuring every moment she can still pull it off.
Arthur/Christopher Lloyd is still the clown, but where does the prankster end and senility begin? Dan/James Caan accustomed to being the ladies man, wondering if he can still woo a woman. Helen/Ellen Burstyn known for her intelligence and grace – losing herself in depression and forgetfulness. Strangely, Janet/Jane Curtin was such an unlikeable, rigid character, she alone didn’t ring true (though tbh, I’ve known one or two like her and didn’t like them either).
Queen Bees will surely be a hit with ageing Boomers. Their stories, some of their favourite actors. Treat your Mum, Nanna, Granddad or ageing auntie to a movie. They will love your for it – and you’ll get a little insight into their life experience.
Queen Bees opens 5 August at select theatres
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