A film review by Craig J. Koban October 15, 2009

WHIP IT   j
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½ 

2009, R, 93 mins.

Bliss: Ellen Page / Brooke: Marcia Gay Harden / Maggie Mayhem: Kristen Wiig / Smashley: Drew Barrymore / Iron Maven: Juliette Lewis / Oliver: Landon Pigg / Earl: Daniel Stern / Johnny: Jimmy Fallon

Directed by Drew Barrymore / Written by Shauna Cross, from her novel Derby Girl

Drew Barrymore’s WHIP IT – marking her directorial debut and based on the 2007 semi-fictional novel DERBY GIRL by Shauna Cross – is a film that, on paper, should have all but imploded by the sheer weight of the litany of clichés that permeates it.  Hmmm…make that a relative mountain of clichés.  Most assuredly, WHIP IT certainly feels like so many other countless inspirational/underdog/sports/coming-of-age films that I have regrettably trudged through before. 

Let’s take inventory: 

Inept, clumsy, and bashful nobody-teen/underdog character that tries to find a lease on life through the discovery of a new sport….check. 

Teen/underdog character that lies through her teeth to her somewhat domineering and conservative parents that would not understand her passion for the sport she has grown to love….check. 

Teen/underdog character that is not physically equipped to participate in the sport that she wants to excel in and, as a result, must train that much harder to gain acceptance….check. 

Teen/underdog character becomes a quick learner and fast tracks herself to the top of the sport, much to the chagrin of her villainous opponents….check. 

Teen/underdog character that falls in love with someone that she once saw as unattainable, but her newfound athletic clout allows her to score with him…check.  Oh…they also have a falling out, which precipitates a real emotional crisis for the underdog later….double check. 

Revelatory scene involving the teen/underdog character’s parents finding out about her zeal for her sport, which leads to a heated standoff and the teen asserting herself versus her ignorant parents….check. 

Finally…the obligatory reconciliatory moment between all parties where the teen/underdog is allowed to play in the equally obligatory “Big, Final Championship Game” where everything is on the line….check.  Add another check for the teen/underdog’s parents showing up to add newfound moral support. 

Seriously, WHIP IT does not, in any way, radically alter the largely formulaic road map for the sports genre film. 

Yet, Barrymore’s film does something that is deceptively tricky: it allow us to overlook all of the veritable and predictable touchstones of these types of films by being surprisingly endearing and sincere with its characters and, most importantly, by achieving a ridiculous amount of slick and merry entertainment value.  Sure, WHIP IT is about as routine and formulaic as most inspirational sports films, but there is not denying that Barrymore’s efforts here result in a fiendishly sassy and infectiously jubilant chronicle of the liberating power of sport to act as a catalyst for female empowerment, and without it coming off like it's egregiously sermonizing to male viewers.  More than anything, WHIP IT relishes in its estrogen-centric storyline: How refreshing is it to see a sports film where women take center stage as the fire and brimstone-passionate athletes and the male characters stand mostly on the sidelines as onlookers?  Even better, Barrymore gets performances of real emotional investment from her principles, which allows the film to feel more authentic and real, despite all of its plot contrivances. 

 

 

WHIP IT, before I forget to mention, deals with the sport of roller derby, which formed the basis of Cross’ novel (she skated for the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and her book and this film are fictionalized accounts of her playing for the Texas Rollergirls).  This is not a sport for slack-jawed wimps: it is fast paced and full contact (and sometimes highly violent contact) where only the strong survive and thrive.  The movie itself is set initially in a small town in Texas that seems compellingly stuck within some sort of odd time displacement (the look and feel of the film suggests a conformist 1950’s flavor despite it’s otherwise 21st Century décor and setting).  We meet the film’s underdog/teen character, Bliss Cavender, who spends most of her time working in a small restaurant while trying to fulfill her mother’s dreams of becoming a pageant queen.  Bliss’ mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden, in finely tuned form here) was once an aspiring beauty queen that now lives vicariously through her two daughters, but she really hopes that Bliss becomes the toast of the Miss Bluebonnet competition.  As a very funny opening sequence reflects, Bliss’ heart may not be in it very much. 

One day Bliss and her best friend (played in a really spunky and pleasantly quirky supporting performance by ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT's Alia Shawkat) sees an add for a roller derby match in nearby Austin.  Bliss becomes instantly smitten with the liberating gladiatorial sport, so much so that she builds up the courage to speak to the leader of one team (the wickedly named "Hurl Scouts"), Maggie Mayhem (the terrific Kristen Wiig), which culminates with her indirectly telling Bliss to give roller derby a try.  The problem for Bliss is that, by her own admission, she has not worn skates since she was a wee tyke and she is physically meager.  So, with a zealot-like fever to secretly abandon her mother’s wishes for pageant glory to become the ultimate derby goddess, Bliss buys a pair of new skates and trains for her first tryout for the club.  This all involves her lying to her parents, of course, secretly taking to bus to Austin for tryouts and, most significantly, lying about her 17-year-old age in order to legally compete (she sheepishly tells everyone that she’s 22). 

Miraculously, the Hurl Scout’s insanely by-the-book coach, Razor (played in a wicked dead pan performance by Andrew Wilson, older brother to Owen and Luke) allows Bliss to tryout, and he becomes amazed by her quick speed and agility.  He decides to give Bliss – hilariously re-dubbed as Babe Ruthless – a shot at the team, much to the chagrin of her teammates, like Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (DEATH PROOF’s tough, but alluring Zoe Bell), and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore, in a very appropriately subdued role that does not shamelessly clamor for the spotlight).  Ultimately, Bliss…er…Babe…becomes an overnight sensation and a highly proficient Derby Girl (especially considering her small stature) which draws considerable attention from a competitor named Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, relishing her role as a villainous, ill-mannered, bitch-on-wheels) that wants to show this young newbie the real meaning of derby pain.  Of course, this culminates in the "Big Final Championship Game" where Bliss must prove her worth against enemies, but not until she confronts her smothering mother (that learned of her secret) that wants to end her aspirations of roller glory for good. 

Again, the one thing that stands well apart from all of the routine plot machinations of the film is in how WHIP IT succeeds so well on its very easy-going and contagious mixture of snarky girl power chic with pathos and laughs.  There is a surprising amount of emotional introspection that Barrymore gives her characters, which helps elevates them beyond the sports genre stereotypes they could have become.  I especially liked Wiig as the tough as nails, but sweet and kindly paternal figure to Page’s Bliss (both of the characters occupy an unusually smart scene of poignant truth where Maggie, a mother figure in her own right, implores Bliss to not underestimate her mother’s concern for her well being).  I also appreciated that Bliss’ parents are not presented as one-note and unsympathetic stooges that have no real care or understanding for their daughter’s feelings.  Daniel Stern does a bravura job of playing Bliss’s trailer park trashy father with a nice undercurrent of sweetness and vulnerability and Harden is simply marvelous playing Bliss’ mother beyond the tight and narrow confines of a monstrous cretin that disapprovingly chastises her daughter’s athletic goals.  It would have been easy for the script to paint her as the icy villain, but Cross gives her much more of a genuine depth: She has a late scene in the film with Page where she consoles her daughter after she suffers from a serious emotional wound that is substantially more affecting than one would anticipate in a film like this.  

There are two other elements that work astonishingly well; the first being that Barrymore – despite being a directorial greenhorn – has the foresight to not make WHIP IT a smug vanity project for herself.  She appropriately dials herself down in her supporting background role and gives a judicious amount of screen time to all of the other actresses.  Because of her focus behind the camera instead of in front of it, Barrymore demonstrates a real soul for filmmaking as well as a resoundingly good eye and ear for getting inspired performances from her colleagues.  Even more impressive is how she and her cinematographer, Robert Yeoman (who previously shot most of Wes Anderson’s films) bring such a startling sense of immediacy in the roller derby action sequences.  All of the matches themselves are so well choreographed and have such a lively energy to them that you very rarely blink at their veracity.  This is also greatly assisted by the fact that it appears that most of the principles are doing most – if not all – of their own skating, which is exhilarating. 

In terms of the second element, WHIP IT once again triumphantly reaffirms Ellen Page as one of the most assured and poised actresses of her generation, and performance after performance proves that her Oscar nomination for JUNO was no fluke.  Narrow minded critics that point out that she essentially plays the same teen archetype in every film miss the boat altogether: In JUNO Page inhabited a quick witted, sarcastic, and hyper pop culture literate adolescent, but in WHIP IT she resoundingly plays a different type of misfit that is unsure of herself and insecure within her own skin.  Anyone that doubts my assertion of Page’s credibility as a screen presence needs to see this film, JUNO, SMART PEOPLE, THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS, THE STONE ANGEL, and HARD CANDY.  Few actresses today have amassed such a noteworthy, varied, and indelible screen resume and in WHIP IT she once again gives a wonderfully grounded, feisty, intelligent, and determined edge to every moment she occupies, so much so that you never doubt your willingness to passionately root her on to final victory.  This is her film as much as it is Barrymore's.

Of course, not all of WHIP IT is a booming success: aside from all of the clichés that abound in the film, there are some segments that ring a little falsely, like a far-too-convenient and tidy resolution between Bliss and her romantic interest with a indie rocker (played with sincerity and naturalness by Landon Pigg)WHIP IT also meanders somewhat during its final minutes where it seems to struggle for just the right moment to cue up the end credits.  Some have also lamented that WHIP IT is far too cute and cuddly, and lacks – pardon the ironic pun – balls as a gritty and gnarly investigation into roller derby itself.  Yet, that’s okay, because Barrymore’s debut effort is so astoundingly high spirited, so unexpectedly charming, so deeply crowd winning, and so affectionately honest and true to its girl powered mojo that it makes all of its would-be stale and perfunctory genre conventions exhale with an communicable heart, soul, and conviction.  It’s not easy to both adhere to and transcend these types of dime-a-dozen sports flicks, but Barrymore -  showing the poise and refinement of directors that have been in the game for years – seems agreeably equal to the task.

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