That Whip It shows Drew Barrymore to be a gifted filmmaker does not come as a surprise. She’s been around Hollywood her whole life and, given her lineage, movies run deep in her blood. One could reasonably assume she’d pick up enough from one of her countless collaborations with gifted directors, or conversations with relatives, to ably make the transition.
However, successfully directing a movie is one thing. Making a picture so full of energy, one that expertly blends bone crunching sports scenes with an earnest look at a chic counterculture and an honest depiction of a mother-daughter relationship? That’s something else entirely.
And that’s exactly what Barrymore’s done in her raucous tribute to following your heart and finding your niche, a classically constructed coming of age story that fully embraces its girl power attitude. Neither groundbreaking in content or construction, the film contentedly offers recognizable characters, trades in straightforward emotions and evokes the youthful thrill of discovering and pursuing a passion.
As Bliss Cavendar, Ellen Page plays another of her characteristically alienated youths, but she turns down the sarcasm that’s begun to seem like a crutch. Instead of spouting Diablo Cody’s melodic witticisms, she quietly conveys inner sadness and frustration as an everyday unhappy teenager, stuck in the proverbial black hole of small town Texas life. For the first time Page projects something less than an air of total superiority onscreen, demonstrating that she too understands the art of speaking with silence and mastering a reaction shot.
When we first meet her a dye mishap finds her hair colored aqua blue as she suffers through a beauty pageant to mollify mom Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). She’s desperate for a way out of her predetermined life of stuffy social engagements with her plastic counterparts, the humiliation of serving her classmates at the local diner and the frustrations of mainstream Americana. When Bliss drags best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to a roller derby match in Austin – complete with its offbeat participants, aggressive rink combat and hipster fans – she finds what she’s been looking for.
Barrymore and her production team, led by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, depict the two worlds in contrasting styles. The small town’s scrubbed clean, with abundant natural light coloring every detail from the the modest ranch homes, manicured athletic fields, tree-lined streets to the glass encased pie displays at Bliss’ place of employment. The roller derby environs have an appropriately edgier feel, with the warehouse setting, crowded backlit bars and rusted locker room notably demarcating the stark difference. Bliss’s heavily tattooed, colorful hair and eye-liner sporting teammates (played by the likes of Barrymore, Kristin Wiig and Eve) enhance the contrast, though the “offbeat” style they share seems rather chichi, as if an American Apparel catalogue were put to celluloid. Really the whole film’s been glamorized, prettied up to pop as big screen escapism, but sometimes that larger than life sensibility works and it never feels out of place here.
The heart of the story lies not in the roller derby competitions, though they’ve been shot with the frenetically cut intensity of a football picture, or in the sharp differences between Bliss’ home life and the dissident paradise she escapes to several days a week. The movie never shies from its unmistakable intention – to inspire lost teenage girls everywhere – and it exudes a welcome empowering spirit that says men need not have a premium on toughness.
Yet, no matter how predictable its narrative might be, something very different sets Whip It apart. Barrymore and Cross devote their most serious attention to the tug of war involved in the complex, evolving connection between mother and daughter, in which words left unspoken loom large and past disappointments remain fresh.
Theirs is not an easy bond, but Harden and Page show it to be deep and true. Brooke’s sternness and Bliss’ rebellion come from real places, informed by their most ingrained characteristics, but the movie suggests that their bond ultimately transcends such divisions. There’s never any caricaturing and never any sense, even as it hits its rockiest stages, of there being anything less than a full measure of love between them. That’s the outlet from which the film derives its power, and the engine that makes the coming of age clichés that comprise the majority of the picture seem as fresh as ever.
The Upside: The movie’s a lot of fun, Drew Barrymore reveals herself to be a gifted director, Ellen Page gives her most likable performance and the screenplay’s unceasingly honest.
The Downside: Occasionally things seem too pretty and overly processed. There are also a lot of clichés.
On the Side: Jimmy Fallon and Daniel Stern also show up. The former plays the roller derby announcer and the latter is Ellen Page’s father. But the comic highlights all come from Andrew Wilson, as the team’s coach.