October 2, 2009
Review - " Whip It " - (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Directed by: Drew Barrymore
Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore,
Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, Eve, Zoe Bell, Landon Pigg, Andrew
Lately I've been wondering if I'm guilty of a little 'grade inflation' when it
comes to my rating movies. I find that I am really enjoying movies lately.
Even the, shall we say, not so great (or even particularly good) films I
manage find something to like about and at least some reason, no matter
how small, to praise them or at least watch them. I've looked over the star
ratings that I've assigned to the flix over the past couple months and am
thinking that perhaps they should all be graded a half star less? Yes even
the one that got the lowest possible rating . But then whether a movie
is good or bad is very subjective and truly a matter of personal tastes.
Films that I hated (Year One, Revolutionary Road) some people thought
were the greatest thing since sliced bread. And others that I loved, there
were people (and no doubt critics) that hated them and felt they were a
complete waste of celluloid. Movies speak to different people in different
ways. Here I am a middle aged male who loves romance movies or "chick
flix". I love a good love story, hell I even love not so good love stories. But
I also love Sci-fi, Action, animated films, and kids movies. And I'm not a fan
of the horror genre and expecially not the slasher sub-genre. I am also a
big fan of certain actors. I have been a big fan of Ellen Page since I first
saw her in "Hard Candy". And of course Juno just cemented her in my
mind as one of the great actresses of her generation. You will be hard
pressed to find an Ellen Page movie that I don't like.
It just so happens that "Whip It" stars Ellen Page as teenager Bliss Cavender who, as the movie opens, is competing in a
Miss Bluebonnet beauty pageant. It is something that her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) wants her to do, but beneath the
gown lies a girl who is trying to break free. Later, while shopping with her mother, a group of roller derby players skates by,
handing out flyers for an upcoming event. Bliss grabs a flyer and later secretly heads to nearby Austin with her best friend
Pash (Alia Shawkat) to check out the action. Soon, Bliss is breaking out her
own pair of skates and trying out for the league. When she makes the cut,
she must find time not only to play, but to also spend time with a musician
named Oliver (Landon Pigg) who she met at a game. Bliss takes the name
"Babe Ruthless" (all the players make up names the play under) and becomes
a league sensation. But just when things are going well and it seems that our
heroine has finally found her own personal bliss, it's only a matter of time
before things begin to unravel.
"Whip It" has garnered attention at the Toronto International Film Festival for
a couple of reasons. First, because it marks the directorial debut of Drew
Barrymore. Second because it marks the return to the spotlight for star Ellen
Page who made a splash in Toronto a couple of years ago with Juno. It's a joy
to see Ellen Page play a character other than the impossibly clever
smart-alecks she's become known for in movies like "Juno" and "Hard Candy."
Here, Page portrays a misfit growing up in the nowhere town of Bodeen, Texas,
and working as a waitress at the local barbecue joint. As for Barrymore, she
holds her own as a director. She doesn't reinvent the wheel, but she succeeds
in creating a world that drew me in, making me want more. And for Ellen Page,
the role is similar to that of "Juno" in that she plays a character with an
independent spirit, but the comparisons stop there. There's something that's
more vulnerable about Bliss. She's a girl looking to discover who she is.
Helping her make that discovery are a cast of players that includes Kristen Wiig
as "Maggie Mayhem", Zoe Bell as "Bloody Holly", Eve as "Rosa Sparks" and
Barrymore, who takes a diminished role as "Smashley Simpson". Even the
villainous "Iron Maven" (Juliette Lewis) takes a turn pushing Bliss to help her
succeed along her journey.
And for a movie that's all about the girls, the guys don't disappoint either. Andrew Wilson reunites with Barrymore (he's had
a role in every movie she's produced) playing the team's coach, Jimmy Fallon helps move the action along as the game
announcer. And lastly, Daniel Stern. There's a scene in the movie (which can also be seen in the trailer) where Stern,
playing the father, says "I cannot take losing the chance for our kid to be happy" and that's all you can really ask for. And if
you're a father with a daughter, and that scene doesn't break your heart, you simply don't have heart worth breaking.
The picture does deviate from formula just enough to be noticed. There is a stock romantic subplot, but it's handled in a
relatively sweet and lackadaisical fashion and doesn't end as you'd expect. Frankly, the movie gets major bonus points
simply for being a rare female-driven movie that doesn't completely revolve around romance or getting the guy. And while
there is a climactic big game, the outcome is almost beside the point. Best of all, the film refuses to indulge in the sort of
'hey look, it's girls kicking ass - how progressive!' pandering that is often found in allegedly feminist films. The fact that
these women really do whack the stuffing out of each other is simply accepted as a matter of course. While a nod is
offhandedly made to the sex appeal of the sport ("Why would you think I wouldn't want to watch a bunch of hot girls on roller
skates in fishnets beating the crap out of each other?", Bliss's coworker asks early on), the film never goes out of its way to
sexualize the contestants. "Whip It" is the best kind of feminist film; it feels no need to comment on the fact that its heroes
are in fact female. Of course, not everything worked. There were a few characters that were a little cut-and-paste.
The movie probably could've done without the whole romance angle. I also didn't get the purpose of Bliss' little sister
(played by Eulala Scheel) who was in the beginning and end of the movie, but seemed to disappear for the rest. Cute kid,
but an unnecessary character. Other aspects of the movie that stood out for me were the music, which was well done, and I
really enjoyed the filming and subsequent intensity of the roller derby sequences.
Like the sport it is based on, the thing that "Whip It"
has going for it is that it is fun. It's not going to win any
Oscars, and you're probably not going to wish your
kids would grow up to play roller derby, but it's the
story of a girl having a dream and her parents
needing to find the courage to allow her to follow that
dream. And I can't really imagine a better actress to
have played that girl. It's a formula picture through
and through, but it is a truly entertaining one. Ellen
Page cements herself as a lifelong actress if she so
chooses, and Drew Barrymore cements herself as a
triple-threat (acting, producing, and directing). This is
the most promising directorial debut by a famous actor
since Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone two years ago.
The film looks great, it's exceptionally well-acted by a
large game cast, and the screenplay by Shauna
Cross (a real-life roller derby player in LA) is filled with
smart dialogue and genuine wit. "Whip It" is a
just-plain fun movie.