Whip It

2009, 111 minutes, Comedy, U.S.; Directed by Drew Barrymore; Produced by Barry Mendel, Drew Barrymore; Fox Searchlight, Mandate Pictures, Vincent Pictures, Flower Films, Rye Road

I’m not sure if this is a weakness I’m finally revealing to everyone who might read my reviews. This might be the one thing I take interest in that would make you roll your eyes and not take any of my opinions seriously. (Like my use of color wheels in that ginormous 2.22 Review & Analysis wouldn’t have done that to a few of you guys already.) Though seriously, this might prove to be a weakness in any film in which this element is used. And that element is, of course, the use of Ellen Page.

Her “normal” and even “alternative” look appears to be a very natural beauty, something that I miss in light of the slew of Victoria’s Secret lingerie models that have begun to plague our screens.  (Even though we all know that Ellen Page is like every other performer in that she requires the customary touch-up for the camera, and is starting to be selected by studios to attract the “alternative” crowd half of the time anyway.) And her performances aren’t bad, either. In much of what I’ve seen her in, she has the same basic approach to her work. She usually plays whatever character in a somewhat timid fashion, which kinda figures since most of the cast in whatever movie she’s in towers over her.  It would be nice to see her break out into something more tough and rebellious, but she doesn’t appear fake or shallow in her roles as timid people either. So I can’t complain. I’m not saying she’s the Actress Goddess Extraordinaire, but she can hold her own in a film and even add to it quite often.

In Whip It, the low-budget Fox Searchlight “indy” film directed by first-time director Drew Barrymore, this talent seems rather typecasted into a role that the viewer is assumed to simply fall for anyway. And let’s face it, it’s hard not to fall for a lead when she looks like a wet puppy who wants to come in from the rain. But aside from the “puppy eyes”, this film only has some minor quirky charms to offer.

The film follows a young girl named Bliss Cavendar, who’s immediately depicted at failing at meeting her mother’s expectations in a local Texas beauty pageant. The manner in which Bliss descends from glory seems to be trying to play for laughs, but anyone listening to the dialogue between Bliss and her best friend Pash (played by Alia Shawkat) is already several steps ahead of the film’s punchline. This odd, pseudo-comedic form of presenting the story’s development really doesn’t to much favors to the film.

While shopping at a store that Bliss’ mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden) finds insulting, Bliss comes across for fliers to to a skating derby. She sneaks one into her bag so as not to alert her mother and exits the store. While sneaking out to her first derby, again with her friend Pash, she develops a strong liking to the sport of girl’s skating derby and, for some reason, becomes a fan of a member of the loosing team, Maggie “Mayhem” (Kristen Wiig) from the “Hurl Scouts”,  and is influenced by her to join the team. The minimum age is 21, and 17-year-old Bliss lies about her age in order to come to team practice.

Pash (Alia Shawkat, left) helps Bliss (Ellen Page, right) out with her training during the montage.

The film goes on for a good stretch of time without any negative consequences to any of this. In fact, most of the film goes on without obstacles or goals of any kind. The Hurl Scouts team themselves don’t mind loosing, and much of their practices end in just playful banter with the coach desperately trying to still care about the situation. That’s right. The coach’s efforts don’t appear to be a result of determination or anything like that, but merely an effort to still care about something his team isn’t interested in. While this can be seen as the coach himself loosing interest, it again doesn’t do any favors to the story’s progression, and doesn’t merit his sudden change at the end of the film. The off-beat comedy explored through this situation results in very forgettable moments throughout the film. The only memorable moment from the coach is when the he uses one of his own plays against his own team, making them realize the importance of aiming to win, and mainly because he did this because he was finally really pissed at them.

There isn’t any negative consequences to Bliss lying to her parents either until over an hour into the movie, and the methods Bliss goes about covering her tracks are non-existent in the film’s story-telling. Through a series of only slightly unfortunate events, Bliss is found out by her parents and is pressured to reveal to the team her actual age. The space between the start of the film and the long-awaited conflict is full of a list of archetypal requirements for any “alternative” coming-of-age story, a romantic relationship with an indy-band singer that is inevitably broken apart, the best friend hated the lead character, the child running away from home only to have her former idol look after her and give her sound advice, and then finally apologizing to her parents. (That last archetype is, admittedly, less of an archetype since it was often over-looked by many Disney films from the 1980’s onward.)

The end of the film tries to give a different perspective on the team revisiting a recurring situation from a different point of view, but like most of its comedy, the viewer always seems to be a couple of steps ahead of the film’s conclusion.

But despite the film’s many short-comings,  I was really able to get into the somewhat action-oriented pacing of the games themselves. I mean, it’s girls on roller-skates beating the snot out of each-other, and one of them is played by Ellen Page. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with such a premise. And the way it’s portrayed makes it worth sitting through the awkward comedy to get there and, as a result, one finally does start to care about the Hurl Scouts once they finally get their head into the games. It just take a while to get there.  And the fact that Jimmy Fallon plays the live sports announcer does finally bring some much-needed proper handling of the film’s off-color comedy. And while much of the film lacks obstacles needed to progress characters, it does have some charming moments in the film that do make one smile occasionally.

I guess the short of it is that Whip It, while it does have its charm, has a hard time finding and emphasizing upon that charm, and abandons the concept of obstacles until after is awkwardly trudges through its charm for a solid hour. The roller-skate derby games make this film worth a sit through, though, as the cinematography places the viewer right there with the roller-skaters getting hit in the face and shoved off the track.

Bliss races in her roller derby game. The cinematography really puts the viewer there in the race with the characters.

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About Stefan D. Byerley
Stefan D. Byerley is an independent filmmaker and freelance visual artist currently residing in North Carolina. He likes detailed storytelling, intriguing imagery, massive bloody violence, crying at the movies, and long walks in the park during the Autumn season.

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