September 15, 2015

Whip It (2009)

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a high school senior living in Texas. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) obsessively pushes Bliss into one beauty pageant after another. Bliss, however, has discovered a nearby roller derby tournament. It's love at first sight, and before long Bliss is lying about her age, playing in the league, finding a boyfriend, and hiding the truth from her unsuspecting family.

Whip It is the directorial debut of actor Drew Barrymore, and is an adaptation by Shauna Cross of her own novel Derby Girl. It's remarkably amiable, boasting pleasant and occasionally surprising performances, a nice musical soundtrack, and some great moments of comedy and small town drama. It's also a mountain of clich├ęs, piled so thick that they can't be avoided and so high that they can't be overcome. The result is a film that is enjoyable while it lasts but immediately forgettable once the credits roll, and can't really be considered as much beyond a minor work.

To be honest the predictable by-the-number story is my only real complaint, so it's easiest and best to acknowledge that nothing in the film will surprise the viewer and move on from there.

Ellen Page is a likeable lead, but probably plays the least interesting character. She's there for the audience to get behind, but there's precious little here to stretch Page or let her express something new. I'm a big fan of Page's work, but she's been given better opportunities than this in many other films.

Much more entertaining are the supporting cast, particularly Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern as Bliss' parents. They're both incredibly realistic and believable characters, and they're both played in very enjoyable ways. Stern is a real surprise, showing a sort of sensitivity and nuance that I don't remember seeing in earlier films. Harden walks a tightrope with outstanding dexterity: she's effectively an antagonist, but where the film could easily make her character out to be deluded, out of touch and ruthlessly unsympathetic it instead gives her heart and warmth. The scenes between Harden and Page - two of the best actors of their respective generations - are played incredibly well.

Kristen Wiig is also good as Maggie, one of Bliss' roller derby teammates. I was particularly impressed with Alia Shawkat as best friend Pash. Both characters felt distinctly real, where several others (Drew Barrymore as one of the roller girls, Jimmy Fallon as the derby announcer, Landon Pigg as a one-dimensional rocker boyfriend) fell quite flat. Juliette Lewis in particular suffers with a very blandly written villain part that's stereotypical and unconvincing.

The film's greatest weakness is its story. It's greatest strength is the conversations between women that are littered thoughout. For the most part they feel like real people with real issues and problems. Even while the story dragged along, I found myself enjoying spending time with these people. That alone can make a film worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. Stern is excellent as a 19-year-old in BREAKING AWAY. I've liked him in other films, but I don't think any of them gave him better material to work with.

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