Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whip It (***)

Directed by Drew Barrymore


Within the theater where I screened the new film Whip It, the seats were filled with numerous women and small girls decked in roller derby gear: fishnet stockings, neon-colored shirts, short shorts, etc. My knowledge of the sport of roller derby grew about ten times before the movie even started, because I noticed that--like most any other team sport--there is a subsequent collection of team togetherness and bad-assery which produces a family atmosphere that is hard to envision if you're unfamiliar with sports. Most moviegoers won't have the same in-theater experience, which is a shame, because the movie may seem a tad more empty without it.

The film is based on the novel by Shauna Cross (who also wrote the screenplay) which follows the life of Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page), a transgressive teen from Bodeen, TX, who is forced into amateur beauty pageants by her micromanaging mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). Her own moral code objects to parading herself that way, but she does not possess enough of an identity to stand up for herself. While she's purchasing a new pair a shoes, she sees a group of roller-skating, rebellious women promoting their roller derby tournament. Bliss is enamored by the women, and decides to visit the tournament.

Along with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), she enters a warehouse where a ring is set up, and a roller derby match is about to begin. There are various personalities on the ring, strapping on roller skates, all equipped with clever (okay, maybe not so clever) nicknames. After the match, Bliss approaches Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and tells her how much she admired the newly-discovered sport. Maggie advises her to visit new team tryouts the next day, and Bliss agrees, becoming the newest member of the "Hurl Scouts".

Bliss is renamed Babe Ruthless, and is brought in to be a jammer, or scorer, because she is super quick, and is able to score points more effectively than anyone else on the usually inept Hurl Scouts. The team consists of a rather rabble-rousing band of misfits including the temperamental Shashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and a committed, if apathetic, coach Razor (Andrew Wilson, brother of Owen & Luke). The Hurl Scouts improve rapidly with the addition of Bliss, but they still have trouble with their rival team, led by the megalomaniacal Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). Can Bliss hold off her disapproving mother to help the Hurl Scouts finally pull off a win?

The movie is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, who has had astounding moments as a young actress, but this is not one of them. Neither her performance in front or behind the camera is particularly impressive, with her Smashley Simpson character being glaringly two-dimensional, and the creative flow of the film seeming repeatedly stunted. Not that her visual eye is particularly inefficient, just clumsy, with many prospective shots (including a complicated one underwater) becoming a little disorienting. In disappointing fashion, Whip It follows the standard of most high school sports films, containing all of the obligatory scenes of overcoming obstacles, and uncharacteristically forgiving parents, that it should.

But the truth is that I would be lying to myself if I didn't say that I fell in love with this film. Its offbeat energy may not always be consistent, but the humor comes on strong and all of its actors seem particularly amiable on the screen. Particularly, Andrew Wilson and Kristen Wiig are able to bring a lot of laughs with their excellent timing (will Andrew be the next big Wilson brother? I'm not sure, but he's great here). In a supporting role, Daniel Stern (remember him?) plays Bliss' father, Earl, in such a wise and effective way, that he even overcomes the limitations of such a role and creates a caring, aloof father without becoming hackneyed.

The film's central player is Ellen Page, who has already established herself as one of the three or four best young actresses. Pre-Juno, Page was a staple within the transgressive, Canadian independent film circuit starring in the skin head picture Mouth To Mouth and the split-screen experiment The Tracey Fragments. Since Juno, Page is now a commercial icon, and Whip It is certainly her least "edgy" role, but what Page has been showing in her post-Juno career is her ability to shine, even in more commercial pictures. She's still as sincere as ever within Whip It, and still an actress I feel I can watch in anything (except for that X-Men movie).

I'll admit that I may not have enjoyed the film if I wasn't in a theater filled with roller derby enthusiasts, or if it wasn't starring Ellen Page. Those facts are irrelevant, though, because that was the atmosphere that I saw the film and it created such a wonderful atmosphere that it would've been impossible not to enjoy yourself. It's a bit discouraging when you think that most, less famous directors would never be able to release their debut if it was this ill-executed, but again, those aren't the circumstances. And most first-time filmmakers wouldn't have such a good cast, anyway.

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