REVIEW: Whip It [2009]

“Cause shoes are a gateway drug”

Bravo Drew Barrymore, who thought you had it in you? I am a self-proclaimed hater of this former child actress turned mediocre adult actress/producer. I did love Donnie Darko, though, and she did play a part in getting it made, but her role was atrocious. So, one may infer where my head was upon sitting down at the screening for Whip It—complete with Buffalo’s own roller derby girls in attendance—to see if she could pull an Affleck, (which isn’t fair since I think he’s a pretty good actor in his own rite, however, you can’t deny the brilliance of Gone Baby Gone). Even after hearing pretty much glowing mentions across the board, it was still Drew. While I think a lot of credit goes towards writer/novelist Shauna Cross for a witty and heartfelt script, you need to give kudos to the director for not only putting it all together, but also for using her clout to cull together a pretty stellar cast. It’s a who’s who of industry goodies, some B-listers on the rise and others just stalwart journeymen that do the job right and have for years. It’s a fascinating topic—the roller derby underground phenomenon itself—and touches on so much more than just that culture, but also growing up and accepting, not only who you are, but who your family is. I had a lot of fun with this thing.

Until I heard Ellen Page’s voice at the start, I thought they had started the wrong film. Our first look into a world of deviancy takes place at a beauty pageant? Odd at first, this story aspect becomes key to the growth of young Bliss Cavendar, leading her to become Babe Ruthless out on the rink. With a former beauty as a mother, controlling and living vicariously through her two daughters, Bliss is going through the motions with a touch of rebellion thrown in. Little sis loves the spotlight and creepy doll-like facades, but Bliss doesn’t have a problem taking a dare and dying her hair blue before the contest’s final event. She has a punk streak and living in a Podunk town like Bodeen, Texas would do that for anyone her age. Working with best friend Pash and recently promoted manager Birdman, (I really like Carlo Alban), at the Oink Joint just isn’t a teenage girl’s dream. At least Pash—Alia Shawkat breaking out of the Maeby Fünke mold—is a straight-A student looking to attend an Ivy League university, for Bliss a way out isn’t as clear cut. So, when she sees a flyer for the roller derby, handed out by a trio of tattooed chicks, her interest is piqued as you can’t get much further away from her mom’s clutches. It was time to dust off those old Barbie roller skates and become aggressive with her future.

Before I talk about the fun atmosphere and riotous time that is had in the old warehouse skate venue, I must mention the family life environment set up as a backbone to our lead. With an conservative mother trying to give her daughter a life to be proud of and a father that lets his wife rule the house as he hides in his van to watch the game in solitude, Bliss didn’t really have a choice but to do what she was told. Besides Pash, she really has no one else to confide in or hang out with. Her ex-best friend is now a popular girl out to make her high school life a living hell with her frat boy clique, pushing our lead further and further into oblivion. She needs the derby in order to make an identity for herself; you know the parents will eventually have to find out, so it becomes how the repercussions of that event occur that matters. Thankfully these adults are not portrayed in a clichéd, boring manner … for the most part. Marcia Gay Harden is a great actress, so you know that role is shored up. I loved watching her cut loose at moments, smacking her husband on the butt or smoking a cigarette, but Harden does uptight with the best of them. The real surprise was in Daniel Stern as Mr. Cavendar—where have you been, guy? Stern is really great, passively aggressive and always involved, although on the perimeter of most confrontations. His interaction with Bliss is real and his competition with his neighbor, having two athletically minded sons, adds some humor.

But the family at home isn’t Bliss’s only community; she has her sisters in padding as well. The roller derby sequences are shot very nicely, getting the audience into the action and seeing the physicality of it all. I wouldn’t mind attending an event myself, especially now knowing my city has a league. Barrymore even puts herself into the action by being the most ditzy competitor of the group, (and she plays stupid well—love the laugh). A short fuse and quick fist, Drew’s Smashley Simpson is thrown out of most games, but not until after getting her nose broken a few times. I almost found it weird to have some recognizable faces such as Eve and Zoe Bell filling out the roster since they have little to do, but one teammate does stand out, and her name is Kristen Wiig. Always the funny girl/sidekick, Wiig really steps out here in a dramatic turn with subtle humor, stealing some scenes and being a surrogate mother for our lead. Hell, I even thought Jimmy Fallon was pretty hysterical as the MC of the sport, trying to get with all the girls and striking out in good fashion; and I hate him. And who’s that coach that sounds just like Owen Wilson? Oh, his other brother Andrew; overshadowed by his successful siblings no more.

It’s an unconventional way to tell a coming of age story, but Barrymore gets everything working on Whip It. Definitely something unique to infuse into the genre while still keeping the heart and emotion necessary to be effective, one can’t deny the appeal of an all-female extreme sport—ladies, don’t feel bad about dragging the boyfriend/husband/etc, he secretly wanted to check it out anyways. Despite a pretty stereotypical love thread with band lead singer Oliver, played by Landon Pigg, bringing it back to Hollywood-type monotony—although the underwater sequence was beautifully shot and choreographed—everything seems fresh, hiding how simple and been-there-done-that the actual plotline is. Well acted, professionally constructed, and funny throughout, with a great soundtrack to boot, they even find room for everyone’s favorite “white-trash diva” in Juliette Lewis—the girl has a gift. Even the credit sequence keeps interest with its outtakes displayed between cast and crew, (who give themselves derby names). You can see how much fun everyone is having and it shows on film in a really good way.

Whip It 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] From left: Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page and Kristen Wiig in WHIP IT. Photo Credit: Darren Michaels
[2] From left: Ellen Page and Landon Pigg in WHIP IT. Photo Credit: Darren Michaels

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