Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ellen Page Carries Drew Barrymore's Directoral Debut To A Bang-Up Spot: Whip It Works!

The Good: Funny, Charming, Good acting, Decent DVD bonus features
The Bad: A little predictable
The Basics: Surprisingly smart and charming Whip It is more than a roller derby movie, it is a coming of age piece with a strong female protagonist.

For those who do not follow my many movie reviews, there are two actresses whose entire portfolios I am endeavoring to watch. Sure, it's easy to want to watch their works, especially when one of the two is Ellen Page, which is probably why I was so bummed I missed Whip It when it was out in theaters. Fortunately, my partner and I caught it recently on DVD and I found it to be of the high caliber I would hope coming from Ellen Page. Equally important, Whip It starts out Drew Barrymore's directing career with an ambitious, fun and ultimately successful start.

Whip It is in many ways a coming of age film which works more because of the sum of its parts than for telling a truly original or spectacular story. The film is a dramedy, which effectively combines a story of teenage rebellion with humor that comes from characters using pun names and cynical humor. And for a movie that does have a pretty strong focus on a sport, Whip It is smart enough to remain character-focused and usurp some of the most obvious expectations one might have going into the film.

In Bodine, Texas, young Bliss Cavendar is enslaved (so she feels) to her mother's expectations that she participate in pageants and beauty contests. Yet, Bliss wants something more than being forced to conform to higher society and working at a restaurant where her peers don't tip her. One day, on a shopping expedition with her mother, she sees young women from the local roller derby come in to leave fliers for tryouts. With the help of her best friend, Pash, she sneaks back down to Austin for tryouts and discovers that she actually enjoys roller derby.

Surrounded by her teammates, like Maggie Mayhem, Smashley Simpson, and Rosa Sparks, Bliss begins to build self-confidence and become the person she wants to be. Still, pressure from her mother, Brooke, endures and because Bliss lied about her age to begin playing roller derby, she finds herself in a very tenuous position. As the biggest pageant of her life looms on the same day as the championship match which will pit Bliss against Iron Maven, Bliss has to choose whether to conform or rebel.

Whip It is, as one might expect, somewhat predictable. Sports movies tend to be about the underdog coming up against impossible odds to win, the hubris of an arrogant champion or the class of those who struggle to participate and accomplish at an athletic event with little variation that can be done based upon the very nature of the genre. Whip It is smart enough to appear like one while becoming another. Never heavy-handed on the sports aspect, Whip It remains tightly focused on the character of Bliss and wisely chooses to explore the conflicts in her life, as opposed to just her seduction into the world of speed skating and elbow-induced violence.

As a result, Bliss's story is essentially three aspects of her life which overlap and intertwine with one another. One of those is the pretty obvious romantic subplot. Bliss falls for a guy in a band whose big break comes just as she is spreading her own wings. That plot is a fairly predictable offshoot of Bliss's rebellion against her mother and her mother's wishes. Sexual freedom is one of the biggest personal liberties young people have, so it works well as a natural metaphor in a teenage rebellion story, which Whip It is in many ways. The more mature members of the audience are likely to watch Whip It and quickly realize just what kind of decision Bliss has made with her choice of Oliver as a partner, but it unfolds well and is entertaining to watch.

Similarly, the plotline about Bliss pulling away from her mother is not at all a new one, but writer Shauna Cross makes it feel like one. Bliss is not portrayed as an ignorant girl and as a result, when she begins to do the natural distancing that comes in the later teen years, the viewer feels like she is expressing herself - and constructively - more than just being either bratty or pointlessly rebellious. Bliss has come to loathe beauty pageants and their monotony, so her initial prank of dying her hair blue during one of them makes a powerful statement about what she wants out of her life which her mother simply does not accept. In Whip It, Bliss's father, Earl, plays an obvious foil to Brooke and that works well.

Both of these plots seem to garner equal, if not more, screentime than the actual playing of the roller derby, which plays well to those who might not be sports enthusiasts. For sure, there is enough of roller derby in the movie to give those who are fans enough to rave about, but because the piece is more a character study, the actual roller derby events are presented in more fragmented ways that keep the focus on Bliss, not the entire contest.

Director Drew Barrymore smartly makes those cuts which keep Bliss in the limelight instead of the sport. As a result, Whip It moves along at a decent pace and it gets where the viewer figures it might go with a sense of wit and movement that makes the movie entirely watchable and rewatchable.

As for the acting, Whip It makes good use out of a strong cast. Drew Barrymore put herself into the movie and Eve is vastly underused. Juliette Lewis gives a strong performance as Bliss's on-ring nemesis Iron Maven and it is Lewis unlike I've ever seen her before. Marcia Gay Harden is in her iron-willed facade for this role and she has that down pat, but it is refreshing to see her working and that she is still at the top of her game. And Alia Shawkat is great comic relief as Pash.

But, as one might expect, much of Whip It falls upon Ellen Page to sell. She manages to play Bliss without a hint of her other characters who helped establish her as a recognizable actress in the mainstream. As such, she makes a very strong female character who is in the process of becoming without the sarcasm from Juno, the uncertainty from An American Crime and with far better lines than she had in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Page has great body language and she sells the hard hits in the roller derby with the same realism as she plays the tender moments opposite her costar playing Oliver.

On DVD, Whip It has deleted scenes, a funny and insightful commentary track and featurettes on making the novel into the movie. These are pretty much what one may expect from a movie of this sort and they offer decent entertainment value for those adding this movie to their permanent collection.

Ultimately, Whip It is a smart enough dramedy to enthusiastically recommend, even with its predictable elements. Those adults looking for a nostalgic trip into teenage rebellion done well will find it in this film.

For other works featuring Drew Barrymore, please check out my reviews of:
Going The Distance
Family Guy – Volume 7
Donnie Darko


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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