Whip It Finds ‘Bliss’
Courtney Eckerle | Monday, October 5, 2009
Based on the novel “Derby Girl” by Shauna Cross, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut “Whip It!” is nothing in the way of groundbreaking. However, it is a great feel good, endearingly goofy, finding your “bliss” kind of movie, in which big dreams meet a small town. While it sometimes precariously walks the line between endearing and cheesy, as Barrymore herself often does, it never slips, and if it does, falls headfirst into funny, fearlessly bypassing what could be obvious and eye-rolling.
Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavender, a punk-spirited, combat-boots kind of girl growing up in a small Texas town, where she is numbingly forced to take part in backwater beauty pageants by her misguided but well-intending mother. She and her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), who fans will recognize from “Arrested Development” fame, work in a roadside diner where they dream of one day escaping the social hierarchy that reigns triumphant (best line of the movie: “We deserve better villains”). A usual plot, yes, but done as colorfully as some of the derby girls’ hair.
One night, Bliss takes a fateful trip to a roller derby exhibition. She tries out for the team, and is surprisingly fast despite her Barbie roller skates. She ends up joining a group of hell-on-wheels roller derby femme fatales who call themselves the “Hurl Scouts.” She also finds that she has joined a family as well, one that is the total opposite (although not as much as she thinks) of her beige-and-taupe 50s-print-ad family at home.
When Bliss makes it onto the Hurl Scouts, they are the worst team in the league, and her underdog story merges with theirs as they battle their way to the championships.
The movie’s true heart is in the ensemble of actresses who play the derby girls, as well as their cutoff-jeans wearing coach Razor, played by Andrew Wilson, who definitely inherited his brothers’ (Owen and Luke) comedic timing. Barrymore takes a small role in the film as one of Bliss’ teammates, playing Smashley Simpson, a lovable goof with an anger management problem who has almost definitely taken one-too-many blows to the head.
The one gag-worthy point in “Whip It!” is Bliss’ love affair with skinny, alternative, cartoony-eyed, Johnny Ramone-type lead singer Oliver (Landon Pigg), playing a knight in shining ray-bans gone wrong.
A sweet love story is usually a must have for any coming of age tale, but this movie would have fared better without it, or, at the very least, it should have been more of a background story line.
Even with a fantastic cast of indie favorites, Ellen Page is the true breakaway. Despite being in a similar kind of movie, she steers away from the “Juno” stereotype and plays a much sweeter, less angry role than the role that made her an overnight sensation.
However, she still can’t seem to find a character in possession of a somewhat normal name. Her transformation from passive and resigned-to-the-boring-life Bliss to the doesn’t-take-any-crap-from-anyone Babe Ruthless (her roller derby name) is hysterical and completely plausible.
“Whip It!” is a great lesson in mediocrity gone wrong, but unfortunately the story doesn’t hit as hard as the girls do. Overall, it is impressive for Barrymore’s first effort behind the camera, although the direction is not its strong suit or where it finds its heart. So while this movie may not be love at first sight, like its characters, it is an underdog movie that has you rooting for it throughout, only to fall short of fantastic in the end.