Whip It is the funny, heart-warming, and surprisingly challenging directorial debut from Drew Barrymore. While the film does have a free-wheeling type of spirit, it has plenty of dramatic moments as well. The main characters are not drawn black and white; they are complex and tough to figure out. Barrymore does an excellent job of incorporating the correct amount of conflict without going overboard. This isn’t your average coming of age story.

The wonderful Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a native of the tiny Bodeen, Texas and the daughter of Earl (Daniel Stern) and Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). She is dragged around by her mother to countless beauty pageants until she runs into something that she really loves: roller derby.

She travels to Austin in order to try out for The Hurl Scouts. She shows up in her Barbie skates that she hasn’t worn in years, but there is a sliver of hope for her because the Scouts just happen to be the worst team in the league. The other members of her squad include Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashly Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and their overly-dedicated coach known as Razor (Andrew Wilson).

As her skating starts to improve, things seem to look bright for Bliss. She has found a new hobby for her and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), and has begun dating the guitar-playing Oliver (Landon Pigg). On top of all that, her parents are actually proud of her because they are under the assumption that she is taking weekly SAT prep classes. And she also gets her new nickname: Babe Ruthless. How could life get any better for Bliss? Well, it can’t, and the good doesn’t last very long.

The better Bliss becomes at skating, the more the rest of the league seems to dislike her, particularly Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). And every single time she sneaks out to Austin, the odds are that her parents are eventually going to find out, and when they do, Barrymore lets her actors steal the show.

Ellen Page is terrific once again in this film. I mentioned yesterday in my review of Zombieland that Jesse Eisenberg is one of the best young actors in Hollywood. Well, on the flip side, Ellen Page is one of the best actresses working today. Like Juno, Page’s Bliss is not a simple character. At times it is very tough to sympathize with her because her actions don’t always reflect her character. She makes dumb decisions, but so would a lot of people in her position. It’s not an easy thing to live up with your parents’ expectations, and Bliss has had enough of these beauty pageants. She wants to be her own woman.

Both Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Harden attack their roles by not trying to just be another conventional parent in a coming of age film. They don’t serve as background characters, but rather they live near the emotional core of the film. There are a lot of things boiling beneath the surface in this family. The more we learn about these parents, especially towards the end, the more profound this conflict becomes.

The script written by Shauna Cross, adapted from her novel Derby Girl, is a solid one. However, I think it struggles to end on the right note. There is a lot of conflict that develops throughout this film and while the script’s ending isn’t necessarily cliché, there are still too many questions left unanswered. Sure, the characters are changed, or at least their feelings towards each other are changed, but the future is left so wide open that it’s tough to feel any sense of security towards our main character.

Nevertheless, this is a film that is worth seeing. Barrymore shows the ability to tell a story in more complex and entertaining ways than one might expect. It is also worth noting that Jimmy Fallon, who appeared alongside Barrymore in the wonderful Fever Pitch, gives one of the funniest performances in the film as the arena’s announcer. And there’s always Ellen Page to drag you into the theater. She is becoming an actress that demands to be seen. 


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Is it wrong that Marcia Gay Harden is why I want to see this...? Though I do love me my Drew. so yeah, her too. Hope I like it.

Danny King said...

@ Andrew: Marcia Gay Harden is excellent in the film. You will certainly not be disappointed with her performance. Barrymore has a pretty small role in the film. Ellen Page ultimately steals the show.

Sam Kaufman said...

Under normal circumstances I would have thought that Ellen Page has a really annoying way about her, but she actually did a great job in this movie; all around Whip It rocked.

Danny King said...

@ Sam: I agree about the film, but I think Page has been consistently excellent in most of her films. I haven't seen all of them, but I have seen Hard Candy, Juno, and Mouth to Mouth, and she was terrific in all of those.

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