Posted: 10/02/2009


Whip It


by Matt Fagerholm

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Whip It is as predictable as peach pie, and every bit as delicious. It follows the Fox Searchlight formula for “female empowerment” vehicles to a capital T. It’s basically Bend it Like Beckham meets Juno meets Waitress, and yet still manages to be uniquely wonderful in its own right. Ever since The Full Monty back in 1997, Fox Searchlight has consistently proven to be the king of crowd-pleasing Hollywood entertainment, and Whip It is a sparkling addition to their repertoire.

Shauna Cross’s adaptation of her own novel “Derby Girl” is the ideal material for Drew Barrymore to bring to the big screen in her directorial debut, since her filmography almost entirely consists of “girl power” flicks. The picture is as light and cuddly as Barrymore herself, and it excels dramatically in scenes involving a turbulent mother-daughter relationship. From Ever After to Grey Gardens, Barrymore has delivered her most riveting work in stories where she is forced to encounter a controlling, often abusive, onscreen mother. Since she was emancipated from her own mother at age 15, Barrymore has always seemed to be channeling the pain from her personal life into her most powerful performances (her battles in Ever After with wicked stepmother Anjelica Huston were particularly explosive). But Barrymore’s earlier struggles have brought her strength rather than defeat, and Whip It is a rallying cry for all girls to be self-reliant (in other words, “be their own hero”). There are no victims in this film…only warriors.

In the lead role of spunky misfit Bliss Cavendar, Ellen Page once again proves she’s as adventurous as the characters she portrays. Bliss suffers the usual misery of a nonconformist teen trapped in the public school system (she lives in Bodeen, Texas, yet since scarcely anyone in town has a Southern accent, it might as well be Diablo Cody’s Midwest). When she stumbles upon a roller derby league in nearby Austin, Bliss feels like she’s finally found her calling, despite being underaged, undersized and relatively unexperienced (her childhood frolicking on Barbie skates doesn’t count). Of course, Bliss must keep her newfound sport a secret from her mom (a magnificent Marcia Gay Harden), a former beauty queen whose obsession with entering her daughters in pageants has odd echoes of Little Miss Sunshine. This subplot may be the sole parallel with Barrymore’s show business upbringing, but the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Whip It is ultimately a positive one.

It is thrilling to watch Page, still only 22, match the power and nuance of a seasoned pro like Harden when they share the screen together. As I watch Page act, I feel the same internal butterflies people must have felt when they watched Sissy Spacek back in the ‘70s. It’s clear that there’s no finer actress her age working in film today. Her commitment to a role is pure and uncompromising, and Bliss may be her most physically demanding role to date, from the head-spinning and slamming derby scenes to a prolonged underwater make-out sequence (beautifully lensed by Wes Anderson’s longtime cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman). It’s nice to see Page in a role that tests her aggressiveness at the same time her Juno co-star Michael Cera explores his untapped dark side in the upcoming Youth in Revolt. It’s doubly nice to see Page sport such great chemistry with Cera’s “Arrested Development” co-star Alia Shawkat (who exudes her specialized brand of charmed snark as Bliss’s BFF).

The parts of Whip It that linger the least in my memory are the roller derby scenes themselves, partly because the competing women have little character depth apart from their macho “stage names” (my favorites were Eva Destruction, Rosa Sparks and Jaba the Slut). The only ensemble members that leave an indelible impression are Kristen Wiig (as the derby vet balancing merriment with motherhood) and Juliette Lewis (as the rival star player with a ferocity to match her age). But in the end, Whip It is a singular character study of a girl attempting to find own way in life. The biggest laugh line in the film’s trailer was when Bliss’s father (played by Daniel Stern, in a rollicking comeback) explains that he married her mom for her smarts…and the fact that he “knocked her up.” That line directly relates to Page’s self-lecture where she grants herself permission to make out with the cute boy that she’s just met…“but that is it!” By presenting a female protagonist who doesn’t need to settle down with a significant other in order to find self-fulfillment, Barrymore’s personal message to female youth is clearly one of revolt.

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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