Monday, November 8, 2010

Whip It

Well, put some skates on. Be your own hero.

This advice is given to a small town girl named Bliss (Ellen Page) by roller derbyist Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig)after Mayhem's team, the Hurl Scouts, once again get their asses handed to them by the Holy Rollers. It's a pivotal moment for Bliss. She came to Austin just to witness some good 'ol sleazy derby action (she told her parents she was going to a football game back in Bodeen) and left with a new paradigm. Up till then, things were dim, uncertain.

Her best friend and waitress co-worker Pash (Alia Shawkat) has plans to attend an Ivy-League school. Bliss herself can't quite seem to commit to these paths everyone's supposed to take. Her domineering but good-intentioned mother (well played by Marcia Gay Harden) pressures her to participate in mother-daughter ceremonies where you put on a dress and all. That's Bodeen culture for you. Dad is laid-back, tolerant of his wife's fussiness but has to retreat to a trailer to watch his football games and swill beer.

So Bliss tries out for and becomes a Scout, learning quickly you have to not only bust your butt and hustle, but also play a little dirty. That's how these bad girls roll. Most viewers for WHIP IT, first time director Drew Barrymore's 2009 drama, will not have watched Raquel Welch going through similiar paces in KANSAS CITY BOMBER nearly 40 years earlier. WHIP IT is a coming of age story, complete with all the character molding ups and downs one sees in films like this. Bliss will fight and make up with her parents (who learn her secret, eventually), her best friend, her teammates, her coach (a very amusing Andrew Wilson). She will also clash with The Rollers' leader, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, in a smart bit of casting). But respect will be earned in the end. Bliss will also find some meaning and purpose for once, too.

WHIP IT is another case of not the "what", but the "how." But the "what" is pretty solid. The screenplay, based on Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl, is for the most part well mounted and earnest. I wasn't entirely pleased with the subplot involving Bliss' rocker boyfriend (predictable at every turn), but otherwise the story works pretty well. The film is considered a drama but has plenty of humor, too. Note the character of "Birdman". 'Nuff said. Page brings believable grit and sass, as well as the expected heart, to her role. With each part, this actress is building a most respectable career. But, there are no slackers in the cast. It was good to see Daniel Stern (as the father), seen in many enjoyable 80s and 90s flicks, working too.

However, it is Barrymore who makes it shine, makes it more than just a passable rainy day time killer. She also plays one of Bliss' teammates, but her primary role this time is to oversee the action. It's a worthy debut. And action there is: often exciting skating track scenes are punctuated by fine editing by Dylan Tichenor. The camaradie amongst the girls is believable and fun, often rowdy, though nowhere nearly as salty and violent as that of Paul Newman and the boys in SLAP SHOT. No, this is a sweet but never syrupy feel gooder that earns its warm feelings. Kudos to all involved.

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