A film review by Craig J. Koban October 15, 2009
2009, R, 93 mins.
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:
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.
clumsy, and bashful nobody-teen/underdog character that tries to find a lease on
life through the discovery of a new sport….check.
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.
character that is not physically equipped to participate in the sport that
wants to excel in and, as a result, must train that much harder to gain
character becomes a quick learner and fast tracks herself to the top of
the sport, much to the chagrin of her villainous opponents….check.
character that falls in love with someone that she once saw as
unattainable, but her newfound athletic clout allows her to score with
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.
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.
WHIP IT does not, in any way, radically alter the largely formulaic road
map for the sports genre film.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.