*** (out of 5)
October 2, 2009
Ellen Page as BLISS CAVENDAR
Marcia Gay Harden as BROOKE CAVENDAR
Kristen Wiig as MAGGIE MAYHEM
Drew Barrymore as SHASHLEY SIMPSON
Juliette Lewis as IRON MAVEN
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Drew Barrymore
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
The expectations you have for an upcoming film can sometimes have a serious impact in your final thoughts. For example, if there’s a film that is getting crazy hype but doesn’t live up to that hype, I can often walk away with a sour taste even if I would have enjoyed the film in a vacuum. It’s for this reason that I try to avoid hype as much as possible (which can arguably be a daunting task for my job).
However, sometimes this expectation sword can cut both ways. In this sense, my expectations for “Whip It” helped the film out quite a bit.
The movie is a coming of age story about Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), whose mother is a conservative Texan who enrolls her into numerous beauty pageants in order to secure her place in society and grant her a reliable future. Bliss, however, rejects the status quo and is searching for something more. Bliss finds that “more” when she heads up to Austin and discovers Texas Roller Derby. Quickly fascinated with the sport, she lies about her age, tries out for the team and becomes the new star for the TXRD squad known as the Hurl Scouts.
When I first saw the trailers for “Whip It,” I didn’t think it would be that good. Coming of age films are hard to advertise, and the whole roller derby angle seemed off-base. However, after seeing the film, I found myself warming up to it quite a bit.
It’s not that we haven’t seen any of the elements of this film before… that is with the exception of the roller derby storyline. (After all, while I remember my dad talking about roller derby when I was a kid, I don’t remember it being very popular outside of some local independent broadcasts in my youth.) The last roller derby movie I can recall is “Rollerball,” and while the original is held up as a classic, the remake was a disaster.
This may not be Ellen Page’s first role since really making a name for herself with the award-winning “Juno,” but this is probably the first time she’s stretched as an actor since then. As Bliss, she embodies the standard rebellious teen presence, but she’s not overly annoying. And I don’t get a sense that she’s trying to retread her snarky character from her Oscar-nominated performance.
The cast really helps this film move forward. With the exception of a cheesy 70s villain cliche from Juliette Lewis, the film is pretty well cast with Marcia Gay Harden throwing down as Bliss’s overbearing mother. Alia Shawkat also comes on strong as Bliss’s best friend Pash. Other notable performances come from Daniel Stern as her timid father and a roller derby team consisting of Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell and Eve. Even Andrew Wilson is likeable as the team’s coach, although he channels his brothers Luke and Owen a bit too much to stand out.
In fact, the only soft spot in the cast is director Drew Barrymore as one of the teammates. Barrymore has trouble balancing self-deprecating humor for herself and narcissism in the spotlight. She probably should have stayed behind the camera for this one.
At its heart, “Whip It” is a sweet little story about a girl finding her place in the world. It stumbles through a series of cliches that work most of the time, although the angst-filled puppy-love story with the indie rock dude gets a bit tired at times.
I didn’t love “Whip It” but I found myself enjoying it, almost against my will. That may have had something to do with the Ohio Roller Girls team that was in attendance at my screening, decked out in miniskirts, fishnets and roller skates, but I like to think I’m above that (though I’m probably not).