[2 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When push comes to shove, films should strive to do one thing - entertain. They should avoid polemics and high minded meaning to offer the mainstream viewer their carefully crafted and measured money’s worth. No one is suggesting that cinema should be all eye candy or easily digested dramatic swill, but does the possibility of satisfaction have to be constantly weighed out against thematic resonance, psychological symbolism, and the filmmakers desire to work through all phases of their own familial dysfunction? If you’re the wonderful, inspired effort from Drew Barrymoore known as Whip It! , the answer is and excited “Hell No!”. Indeed, for this long time prodigy/first time filmmaker, the need to please provides enough impetus to create a sure-to-be-embraced grrl power classic.
Little Bliss Cavendar lives outside Austin, Texas, stuck in the kind of going nowhere town that those proverbial single horses avoid like the glue factory. As a teen, she has limited opportunities and almost infinite dreams. Of course, her mother could care less about what she wants. Said matron is desperate for her children to compete in the local beauty pageant (where she was once the fairest of them all). Father is so disconnected that he can’t even watch sports in his own house. Best friend Pash provides some relief, but she too is lost and looking for a way out. One day, Bliss comes across a flyer for a local all female roller derby club. Convinced it might be fun, she decides to try out. Soon, she’s the star player on the ragtag collection of nurses, waitresses, and other middle income mammas. This makes her teammates happy (they’re finally winning). This also makes her competition suspicious (she is underage, after all). Neither is more of a concern than what will happen if her mother finds out.
Whip It! is wonderful, a clap along crowd pleaser that also speaks the language of an underserved cinematic demographic. Young girls are never really given adult movies to mope about in. In 2009, it’s all questionably talented tweens, high school musicals, and failed family film franchises. Instead of our heroine, they’re our halfway point to a snarky one liner or a major last act denouement. So it’s stunning to watch a 17 year old disaffected gal suddenly discover herself in the bruiser babe burlesque of roller derby - especially this new version of the old UHF sport, complete with tattoos, piercings, proto-feminist philosophies, and male-baiting bravado. Everyone on the cleverly named ‘Hurl Scouts’ understands the power they possess, both in the ring and outside the lines. They wield their flagrant sexuality like a carefully draw double edged sword. Sure, there are elements of exploitation here (who doesn’t want to see hot babes beating each other senseless). But that’s not exactly what director Drew has in mind.
No, what Barrymoore hopes to accomplish more than anything is the first ladies-only epic, a solid cine-masterpiece where guys are goony (perfectly personified by Jimmy Fallon’s hopelessly hard-up announcer “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket) and the woman are wise and wicked as Woodstock. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, of finally discovering which subsection of idiosyncratic society your post-modern adolescent mindset meshes with. Even the ‘villains’ vie for our attention with a calculated combination of she-devil divadom and outright spunk. Indeed, we never really buy into the whole “us vs. them” dynamic. Perhaps that’s why, unlike other sports films, Whip It! doesn’t rely on the stereotypical “big game” to set things right. Whether or not Bliss and her buddies win is beside the point. Being able to express their athleticism and prowess in a way unexpected in this patronizing, paternalistic society seems like reward enough.
Barrymoore takes points as a slightly stoned, amiably out of focus fixture named Smashley Simpson. She then fills out the rest of the cast with a remarkable collection of familiar faces (Eve, Zoe Bell, and Kristin Wiig as heroines, Juliette Lewis as the rapidly aging antagonist) and then lets them sample for her constant stream of spirited sunshine. This is the kind of movie that plants a permanent smile on your face, that has you eagerly anticipating the next scene only to bask in the funky fresh glow of these genial, good natured gals. Providing the proper creative counterbalance are two sweetheart strangers in a bad-ass body art strange land. Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat is more than just the wise best friend. She’s an old soul struggling to figure out why karma has decided to crap all over her. Of all the supporting players, she gets the most grief - both from her best pal Bliss and within their hapless backwater burg life.
But the movie really belongs to Ellen Page, who offers us a version of Juno untouched by Diablo Cody’s purposeful geek speech. The talented 22 year old is picture perfect for the role of Bliss, expertly essaying both the joys of individual discovery and the pain of personal interfamilial defeat. With Marcia Gay Harden has her own personal Mommy Dearest (though definitely not as abusive) and Daniel Stern as a null set father figure, it is up to Ms. Page to pull us through her quagmire, to get us to see why she fervently needs to escape and why roller derby provides said passion. Her chemistry with the rest of the cast is so powerful, their scenes together so telling, that it almost feels like the competitions are rock concerts. We see a group of practiced, in sync stars and then watch as they work together flawlessly to make their magic.
No one, however, is better than Ms. Barrymoore. She announces herself as a truly capable creative force, someone who doesn’t need to sit in front of the camera to offer up something inspired. Whip It! never missteps, is never awkward in its transitions or storytelling, and ends up so effervescent and fun that you can’t help but feel uplifted in the process. During the finale, when Bliss is sitting on top of the BBQ restaurant she waitresses at, Barrymoore holds the lens of Ellen Page’s upturned face. There are no flags waving, no celebratory music spoiling this delicate, individual moment. As the close-up continues inward, the smallest smile passes by the actress’s lips, an indirect acknowledgment of a job well done. We share in that sentiment. You will not have a better time at the movies this flailing Fall season than with this wildly enjoyable experience. Whip It! works…and does so sensationally. Apparently, movies can be fun. It just takes someone like Drew Barrymoore to figure out how.