A League of Her Own

Don’t Talk to Irene
(Canada, 82 min.)
Written and directed by Pat Mills
Starring: Michelle McLeod, Bruce Gray, Anastasia Phillips, Scott Thompson, Geena Davis
Michelle McLeod stars in Don't Talk to Irene
Remember back in the 90s’ when Dishwalla sang about God being a woman? They must have been referring to Geena Davis. Not Thelma & Louise Geena Davis, mind you. A League of Her Own Geena Davis.

Tell me all your thoughts on God? / ’Cause I would really like to meet her. /And ask her why we're who we are,” the song goes.

Geena Davis—actress, Oscar winner, TV President, and prophet—sees all and knows all. Davis provides Her wisdom to a young Canadian girl named Irene Willis (Michelle McLeod) in the Podunk town of Park, Ontario, which is too far north of Toronto to be any fun and too far south of Blahttawa to teach her some sexy French. Irene, a fat, awkward kid who dreams of being a cheerleader, finds guidance from a higher power by conversing with a poster of that hangs above her bed. There’s a lot more to learn from Her than a wise adage about crying and baseball.

Irene experiences an upbeat coming of age story in Pat Mills’ roaringly funny Don’t Talk to Irene. Irene doesn’t get a toot about body image despite the snickers and taunts that she’s the fattest girl in school. Even her mom, Lydia (Anastasia Phillips), a former star of the pompom league, reminds her that her body isn’t cheerleader material. This offbeat comedy is unabashedly feel good, but it’s naughty and potty-mouthed, too, like the spunky heroine at its centre who learns to soar in unconventional ways.

Screw convention, though. Irene pluckily sets off to audition for the team and even sews her own dumpy outfit to fit the part. However, a mean girl at school named Sarah (Aviva Mongillo) and her friend Tony (James Fry) put Irene through a cringe-inducing hazing ritual. One suspension later and Irene finds herself leading a league of her own: old people.

The principal gives Irene, Sarah, and Tony the ultimate punishment of forced community service with the elderly, so they tromp next door to the seniors’ residence. They take orders from an OCD manager (Scott Thompson), but Irene finds freedom in this new stomping ground full of people who have lived far too long to give two fucks about what anyone cares. Don’t Talk to Irene is Old Stock with a proud Viagra-induced lady boner as Irene dances with all the silver fixes at the home and finds far more encouragement, confidence, and personal growth than cartwheels on the cheerleading team could ever provide.

Euphorically poppy indie vibes give the film a peppy endorphin high as the soundtrack embraces Irene’s carefree demeanour. Irene’s unflappable spirit is infectious as she goes toe to toe with her mom and teaches the former cheerleader a lesson of her own about shaking off hang-ups and self-doubts. Lydia, who had Irene just as all her friends left Park for college, is so concerned about other people that she shields her daughter from the world and bans all connective devices: phones, computers, and even TV. Irene’s religious devotion to Geena Davis is a quiet act of rebellion.

Mills’ voice and direction is sharp, witty, and refreshing with this underdog tale for the misfits. Don’t Talk to Irene is warm and inclusive as Irene comes into her own and takes pride in her body and spirit. McLeod shines in an extraordinary debut performance that carries not a hint of reservation or self-awareness. She’s a natural star and an extremely funny one at that, showcasing a knack for physical comedy and an even better hand a keeping the beat of the comedic timing that pulses with vitality in Mills’ script. It’s impossible not to be completely won over by McLeod and Irene as she confidently owns the spotlight.

McLeod has a fun motley crew of supporting players joining her, particularly Andy Reid as Tesh, Irene’s flamboyantly funny sidekick who falls somewhere whimsical on the gender fluid spectrum. The film also has a strong rock in Bruce Gray as Charles, a dashing widower/ex-boxer who moves into the retirement and becomes a cantankerous dance partner for Irene as he sets the loins of the old ladies of the house afire. These grand dames are played with deadpan hilarity by Joan Gregson and Deborah Grover, and there’s also a fun cameo by Mills in Bad Teacher mode with a nod to his directorial debut Guidance.

But the wind beneath Irene’s wings is Davis herself, who gamely goes along with the joke and makes a brief appearance to take Irene’s hand and give her a nudge of confidence. Her presence complements McLeod’s own carefree attitude, and the joy of what makes Don’t Talk to Irene one of the year’s best comedies is seeing these actors excel while having fun. Don’t Talk to Irene does for Davis what Finding Dory did for Sigourney Weaver by casting the star in a self-effacing nod to her own celebrity as she plays God in hilarious voiceover that guides Irene through life with aphorisms of wisdom that draw on her filmography. And to think I’ve been praying to Meryl Streep this whole time!

Don’t Talk to Irene opens in Toronto Sept. 29 at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas.