Review: Whip It (2009)



Drew Barrymore
Shauna Cross (Novel: Shauna Cross)
111 min.
Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, Alia Shawkat, Eve, Zoe Bell, Ari Graynor, Daniel Stern, Eulala Scheel
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug

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Whenever you see Ellen Page in a film, you expect it to have an overdeveloped sense of the modern teen. Not only does Whip It play into that stereotype, the result is something far more interesting and engaging than one might have expected.

Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut in this adaptation of the Shauna Cross novel (she adapted it herself) about a misfit high school girl working in a diner who discovers a new part of her self while secretly participating in an underground roller derby club.

Maybe you remember the roller derby, that uber-violent pseudo-sport that grew out of the 1970s where buxom women on roller skates jabbed, tripped and otherwise brutalized their opponents. More an underground favorite for its ruthlessness than for its actual sports value, roller derby faded as the ‘80s pressed on and has only recently begun to re-emerge as a popular form of entertainment.

Despite this resurgence in popularity, it’s a rather unusual event to find the sport on the big screen after its virtual invisibility over the last thirty years. But the makers of Whip It aren’t looking to use the sport as some revenge fantasy like the exploitative films of the 1970s. Instead, it uses the camaraderie of the players as a backbone for its story presenting young Bliss Cavender (Page) with a family structure she seems to be lacking at home.

Bliss is at that age where rebellion is important, helping her to discover who she really is. A beauty pageant contestant is not what she wants to be. However, that’s what her mother wants of her. Marcia Gay Harden appears as Bliss’ mother Brooke, a failed pageant darling hoping to mold her daughters into winners, believing it is the only way for them to be successful and thus happy.

What she sees when she attends her first roller derby contest is a perfect way to rebel against her mother. She practices and tries out to play in the league, pretending to be of legal age to avoid getting her parents’ permission. Her fellow teammates don’t question her veracity, having formed a perfect synthesis of a family despite never having won a match. But, things begin to spiral out of control as she helps deliver victories for the team and a rival team’s leader, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) becomes increasingly suspicious and begins digging into Bliss’ real life.

Page is a perfect fit for this role, as she was in Hard Candy and Juno. She’s a smart girl who can deliver modern phrases and lingo with accurate inflection and perfect timing. That she has become typecast in these roles isn’t really an issue here. Although I would like to see more from her in other roles branching out into different styles and characters, I’m satisfied with what she’s accomplished here.

Kristen Wiig is the matriarch of the Hurl Scouts, the team “Babe Ruthless” (Bliss’ chosen moniker) decides to play for. Wiig is endearing, kind, generous and perfectly fitting in her role. Although not the aging, foul-mouthed mother figure Julianne Moore brilliantly portrayed in Boogie Nights, Wiig’s performance is of a similar mold.

Not to diminish the work Wiig and Page do in the film, but this film’s best performance belongs to Lewis whose Iron Maven is every bit the ungracious, aggressive villain we’re all expecting. Her last few scenes squeezing Bliss for information and making a few surprising revelations of her own are high water marks. I haven’t seen Lewis in some time and spent much of the film trying to remember where I knew her from, but I love such delicious and dedicated character development and heartily welcome her back to my viewing enjoyment.

Not as strong in the performance department, but Bliss’ fellow Hurl Scouts are interesting caricatures played for laughs and helping bridge some of the slower parts of the film. Credit goes to director Barrymore as Smashley Simpson, Eve as Rosa Sparks, Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly and Ari Gaynor as Eva Destruction. Not great characters but fitting and amusing performances.

Unfortunately, there are a few leaden weights in the cast, coming from a rather unexpected place. Harden’s aggressive and overly protective mother is a little too outlandish to be believed. She’s a terrific character actress, but her maternal instincts seem to be derived from every weak mother role ever created. She doesn’t liven the portrayal up and her multiple breakdown scenes are overwrought and frustrating.

Daniel Stern as her trailer park-inspired husband is equally unmemorable. He enters a few scenes, does the “I’m proud of you” schtick when needed and then disappears again. The flaw may entirely be in the writing and not the performance. I’ve never found Stern a particularly strong screen presence, so I’m not surprised to see him founder with the material, but I would have expected better from Harden.

Now we come to the most integral parts of the film, director Drew Barrymore and screenwriter Shauan Cross. Although Cross’ screenplay is not the most astute or other-worldly, it is still an entertaining and emotionally involving piece, and that is almost entirely thanks to Barrymore’s assured directorial skills. She could have done a little re-tooling and cutting, but for the most part, this is a supremely auspicious debut. She displays her decades in the industry with aplomb and wit, shows an understanding of pacing and story arc development.

She meshes exceedingly well with her cast, succinctly embodied in a small, not entirely important scene where all of the roller derby teams come together for food, fellowship and food-fighting. The bond between these women as actors and as characters is unquestionable. It adds something to the film that many other directors might have missed or even glossed over. Even if it was the perfect material for Barrymore, I have no problem seeing her branching out from this success and making a name for herself as a director.

Whip It is not a film for everyone. It’s not high art, nor does it pretend to be. It isn’t a muted film dumbed down for the masses either. It fits the niche of independent features that doesn’t strive to achieve a strident philosophical point or attempt to talk down to its audience as if the are unenlightened imbeciles. It’s an enjoyable, engrossing, modestly enlightened piece of humor, enthusiasm and rollergirls.
Review Written
April 23, 2010
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