Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love: Whip It

Considering the brutality of its source sport, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is anything but. Instead, the film packs hilarity and sincere sweetness at every turn, its warm, vaguely nostalgic look and music tempering it perfectly without making it feel too goopy or over the top.

Whip It follows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) as she transforms from a quiet 17-year-old pageant slave into the Austin roller derby star Babe Ruthless. With the help of the Hurl Scouts including Maggie Mayhem, Bloody Holly, Rosa Sparks, and Smashley Simpson, she finds her voice and “becomes her own hero.”

Films with a strong gurrl power and “it’s ok to be you” message, that also revolve around major sub culture activities, such as roller derby, are hard to pull off and tend to stick to a solid David vs. Goliath formula. They tend to be either throw away caricatures of sub culture stereotypes or boring fluff. But Barrymore creates depth and balance by making her characters real people, preserving the flaws and loud personalities you're likely to meet in a small Texas town or an Austin roller derby without forcing their unique quirkiness down our throats.

The rivalry between the Hurl Scouts and the Holy Rollers (the three-year champions) doesn’t feel goofy or Disney-esque good against evil, as in most underdog movies. Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) is realistically cranky and entitled but still good hearted, never straying into gross villainy or the cat scratchiness you'd expect from a girl on girl movie. Kristen Wiig is surprisingly subdued as Maggie Mayhem and provides yet another grounding force for the film when she earnestly guides Bliss and encourages her to find a balance between being yourself and finding a place with everyone else. Barrymore's is the only truly over the top character, but she has the wise directorial skill to keep her screen time low so that we get just enough of Smashley Simpson to laugh, and not enough to get annoyed. Rounding out the cast, Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Harden are fabulous as Bliss' parents and look for Andrew Wilson with a stellar, heart tickling performance as the Hurl Scouts' coach Razor.

In addition to the incredible natural acting, the film is beautiful to watch with a warmth to the cinematography reminiscent of late summer and rocks one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard this year.

The film is somewhat predictable, but it keeps things interesting by leaving the standard path in just the right ways. SPOILERS** The Hurl Scouts, despite their hard work, do not win the championship, and Bliss doesn’t entirely reconcile with her mother at the end, nor does she end up with the hot rocker boyfriend she almost bagged. But making these small adjustments to the formula, Barrymore again builds a natural foundation to the film where it could have easily drifted into a She’s All That teen fairy tale.

Barrymore has come a long way, and this film, although small in scope, is a great addition to her resume and has officially put her on my girl crush list. More importantly, its great to see a film about girls being themselves and bonding without cosmos or a shoe dangled over every shot; Who better than Barrymore to make one of the first feel good, empowering chick flicks that’s actually about real women and real life.

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