Reel Dad: Ellen Burstyn steals the spotlight in senior comedy ‘Queen Bees’

Twenty-one years have passed since Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn last held center screen in a leading role in a movie.

The year was 2000, the film was the adaptation of the novel “Requiem for a Dream,” and Burstyn was Oscar nominated for the sixth time. She later graced “House of Cards” with a luminous portrayal as Claire Underwood’s mother and, on the big screen, was considered a possible Oscar contender last year for her striking work in “Pieces of a Woman.” But a leading role has eluded her. Until now.

While Helen in “Queen Bees” may not be the role of a lifetime, Burstyn’s creative approach to playing this senior citizen with spunk offers a marvelous chance to see a legendary actress at work. She carries the film on her well-experienced shoulders, adding subtlety and substance to a tale of people trying to sustain interest in their lives. She is funny and touching, spontaneous and moving. Best of all, Burstyn reminds us why we cherish her work. She is always fresh, and forever real, never letting an artificial moment tarnish her presence on screen.

The film’s story, however, can be as flimsy as it feels familiar. In an opening reminiscent of the start of “Driving Miss Daisy,” Burstyn suddenly needs help after an accident in her home of many years. Naturally, this accomplished former teacher (like Miss Daisy) resists any change to her routine. The solution her daughter suggests - to temporarily move to a senior citizen village - does not fit this lady’s view of herself. But she has to go and, against her wishes, Helen enters a facility filled with people trying to make the most of their senior moments.

Movies love to tell stories about how people age, from the recent “Pom Poms” with Diane Keaton to “Cocoon” and “On Golden Pond” from the 1980s. Screenwriter Donald Martin borrows from favorite films - as well as Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” - to create a fictional world where bridge games become competitive matches, romantic entanglements spontaneously emerge, and people discover truths they have avoided for years. While the situations may be predictable, director Michael Lembeck invests the film with enough heart to make what we recognize reliably entertaining.

Best of all, Lembeck gives Burstyn the chance to shine. The actress radiates warmth with her smile, and conviction with her eyes, as Helen protects herself from people who could dilute her commitment to life. The actress is ably supported by an all-star cast of luminaries, including a delightful Ann-Margret as a supportive friend and the always-hilarious Jane Curtin as a worthy adversary. Best of all is a surprise appearance by James Caan who, after all these years, still knows how to bring his charisma to the screen.

Film Summary: Queen Bees

Content: High. This light-hearted exploration of how people age offers familiar entertainment that, at moments, can also make us think.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to wonderful work from Ellen Burstyn, and a strong supporting cast, the film feels fresher than its script.

Message: Medium. How these senior citizens navigate the challenges of aging offers encouragement and entertainment.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn more about how we change as we age can be enlightening.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your children about how generations should support each other through changes that life brings.

“Queen Bees” may not have anything new to say about how people age but, thanks to Burstyn and her supporting cast, this return visit is a lot of fun.

“Queen Bees” runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. The film is rated PG-13 for “drug use, suggestive material and some language.” It is playing in theaters and on Apple TV+.