Whip It (United States, 2009)October 01, 2009
Whip It, the directorial debut of actress Drew Barrymore, is a sports film that uneasily straddles the divide that exists between comedy and drama. Built upon a mountain of clichés, the screenplay wallows in artificiality and, although some of the sports action sequences are well choreographed and have a ring of authenticity, nearly every scene away from the arena reeks of contrivance. The lead character isn't remotely believable and the screenplay feels like it went into production while still in the draft stage. The things Whip It does well are overshadowed by its numerous missteps.
Whip It is based on Shauna Cross' novel, Derby Girl, a fictional tale that uses incidents and anecdotes from her time spent in professional roller derby. For those unfamiliar with the sport, a quick primer is provided in the movie, and it's easy enough to pick of the basics as things go along. Because many of the in-game instances are based on real-life occurrences, the mantle of contrivance that blankets much of the film is absent during these sequences, although aspects of the general "sports movie formula" apply. (Inept team gels with the addition of a new superstar and goes all the way to the championship game.)
Most of the action takes place in and around Austin, Texas, where the Texas Roller Derby team "Hurl Scouts" is based. Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a waitress working at a diner in a dead-end town outside of Austin. Bored and desperate to find a way to escape the oblivion of a monotonous life that revolves around school and beauty pageants, she hears about a try-out for the Hurl Scouts and attends. Much to her surprise, she is successful and ends up joining the likes of Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), and Rosa Sparks (Eve) on the team, which is coached by a guy named Razor (Andrew Wilson). Bliss, who changes her name to the more intimidating "Babe Ruthless", loves her new life, which comes complete with a rock star boyfriend, Oliver (Landon Pigg). But there's a downside that includes a growing separation from her oldest friend, Pash (Alia Shawcat), and necessitates lying to her domineering mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), and laid-back father, Earl (Daniel Stern). Ultimately, Bliss' meteoric rise within the roller derby world places her in the cross-hairs of her arch-enemy, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), in a winner-takes-all game that occurs at the same time as a beauty pageant final in which Bliss is supposed to participate.
It would be nice to say that Barrymore brings a sense of energy and authenticity to a script that feels more than merely familiar, but that would be untrue. The only instances in which Whip It comes alive are during the sports scenes and late in the proceedings when some of the characters shed their caricature masks and morph into facsimiles of real people. Unfortunately, the movie as a whole comes across as a regurgitation of numerous better productions, and the unique element of this one - roller derby as the sport - isn't new enough to inspire or excite. Most of the comedy is muted (by intention - this isn't supposed to be an excursion into hilarity), offering the occasional chuckle but not much else.
It's hard to say whether Ellen Page is miscast or whether the falseness of the role simply defeats her singular ability as an actress, but I never bought into this character the way I did Hayley in Hard Candy or Juno in Juno. Page has some nice scenes, including a deliciously nasty one in which she verbally dresses down her parents, but she's only moderately credible as Bliss and even less believable when she puts on the pads and helmet and becomes Babe Ruthless. (The latter piece of equipment, by the way, causes her to resemble the Great Gazoo.) Whip It features a couple of effective supporting performances from Daniel Stern as Bliss' supportive father (not unlike J.K. Simmons in Juno) and Kristin Wiig (following Adventureland and Extract) continuing to mature beyond the zany persona that trapped her in many of her early efforts. Barrymore does not force her own character into the spotlight and she finds a part that fits within Juliette Lewis' limited range.
Sometimes a new director, even one with a significant resume in front of the camera, steps forward to surprise with a first film. More often than not, that isn't the case, so no final determinations should be made regarding Barrymore's behind-the-camera capabilities based on the failure of Whip It. The movie is too safe and generic; even the best director would be challenged to do much with the material. At its best, this could have been a passable distraction and at its worst, it could have been unwatchable. Barrymore manages to bring it in somewhere in between those extremes.
Whip It (United States, 2009)
Cast: Ellen Page, Eve, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Landon Pigg, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Stern, Marcia Gay Harden, Andrew Wilson
Screenplay: Shauna Cross, based on her novel Derby Girl
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: The Section Quartet
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
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