October 01, 2009

Whip It

Bring me a box of Tagalongs, pronto!

Grade: B –

Director: Drew Barrymore

Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, and Drew Barrymore

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Ok, so it’s not exactly Juno on roller skates. Still, Whip It borrows heavily – like Smart People before it and undoubtedly many films after it – on typecasting Ellen Page as the spunky, whip-smart teen. While we look forward to Page expanding her role horizons, one thing is certain: She sure is great at playing a spunky, whip-smart teen.

While Whip It is entertaining in its own rite, Page carries the film on her pubescent back, overcoming numerous shortcomings brought on by a clich̩d screenplay and some expected Рand mostly excusable Рfloundering by debut director Drew Barrymore (who also costars).

Barrymore’s mistakes are not in spirit. Her film about a warehouse roller derby league in Austin, Texas treats its milieu with respect, presenting the all-female derby subculture not as an oddity but as misunderstood at worst and wicked awesome at best. Page is the treacly-named Bliss Cavender, a 17-year-old misfit who finds her calling in the roller rink under the moniker ‘Babe Ruthless' as a member of the rough-and-tumble Hurl Scouts, not in the assortment of teenage beauty pageants her reproving mom (Marcia Gay Harden) sticks her in.

While the film is imbued in female empowerment, Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross (adapting her novel “Derby Girl”) conspicuous cast women – Bliss’ mom, her stuck-up high school friends, her roller rivals – as the antagonists. Meanwhile, men are generally shone in a sympathetic or even heroic light, including the derby team’s long-suffering coach (Andrew Wilson) and Bliss’ henpecked dad (Daniel Stern).

Most of the cast is up to task, including Alia Shawkat as Bliss’ best-friend and Kristen Wiig, who reigns in her sometimes annoying SNL persona for a subdued but hilarious performance. On the other hand, Barrymore’s excessive focus on BFF Jimmy Fallon as the derby’s carnival barker emcee grows wearisome well before his umpteenth pun falls flat.

Indeed, much of the humor in Whip It mirrors the same overbroad comedy Barrymore herself usually parades onscreen. A food fight, seriously? And, one scene in which Bliss’ dad shares a Fosters with his teenage daughter while they watch football on TV in the back of his van seems creepy coming from Barrymore given her well-chronicled history of childhood substance abuse.

The storyline itself is the same Bad News Bears entree mixed with a heavy dollop of Bend It Like Beckham and served with a passé boy-meets-girl side dish. And, while Barrymore wisely provides center stage to the action sequences, they often come across as a bit too choreographed.

Still, Whip It’s message overshadows its execution. And, before she turns the next page in her career, it is nice to see that Ellen Page doesn’t need Diablo Cody’s jabberwocky to carry a movie.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

Sam Kaufman said...

Drew Barrymore did an awesome job directing Whip It... tons of fun to watch -- made me want to go watch roller derby and drink cheap beer