Thursday, July 21, 2011

Whip It (2009)

Whip It Good

- Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It (2009) is a hit - and yes, that is a roller derby pun and a bad one at that. But it was the only thing I could think of for an opening line, so deal with it.

Directed by actress Drew Barrymore and written by Shauna Cross (based off of her novel "Derby Girl"), Whip It is the story of lost teen Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). Bliss is not exactly used to sitting at the cool table during the lunch period at school and is being pressured by her mother into participating in loathsome beauty pageants at home - about the only thing that Bliss constantly does is not fit in. What Bliss really wants to do is play roller derby and be herself, which opens Bliss up to a lot of struggles against herself, her family, and good decision-making.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss and does her usual Hollywood persona thing, except she is a bit more reserved and fragile here in Whip It than she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Juno (2007), where she played a much more headstrong character. Some of my fellow armchair film reviewers seem to love to hate Ellen Page but I will not hold back my praising of her great performance here in this film. Page is endearing, funny, relatable, has great screen presence, and excels in her role as a result.

Outside of Page's Bliss character, the film is filled to the brim with supporting characters. The smaller roles are terrifically entertaining and feature such talent as Juliette Lewis, whose veteran acting skills are put to great use here in her portrayal of Bliss' main derby rival Iron Maven; Andrew Wilson, who clearly takes after his more talented brother Luke, being very funny as Bliss' derby coach; Daniel Stern, who is a huge delight as Bliss' father; Jimmy Fallon, who gives a very funny few minutes as the roller derby play-by-play/commentator; and Drew Barrymore picked an excellent bit part for herself: Smashly Simpson, Bliss' teammate who is a few wrenches short of a tool set.

The more significant supporting roles are also played extremely well: Marcia Gay Harden plays Bliss' mom very effectively, being very relatable in a character that could otherwise be easy to villainize; Kristen Wiig is very entertaining as Maggie Mayhem, Bliss' mentor and teammate; and former "Arrested Development" star Alia Shawcat gives probably the best performance in the film as Bliss' best friend, Pash, who is also the film's most well-rounded character.

After seeing Whip It, I am already anticipating Barrymore's next directed project - she tells a fun story with precision and grace (as graceful as roller derbies and family squabbles get) and also seems to be able to assemble a great cast. The thing about Whip It is that the film is clearly told from a female perspective but it is not so exclusive that not everyone can get involved. Whip It digs further than your average chick flick, the themes take unexpected turns and expose a lot of life truths, and just about every character is relatable to most people on some level.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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