'Whip It' whips up the girl power
If you're famous in Hollywood and you want to direct the chances are it's going to happen. Film companies love putting name actors' names on their movies so when one wants to direct it usually happens. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn't. Whip It is Drew Barrymore's directorial debut and she chose a girl power/indy comedy/sports film starring Ellen Page to do it with. Three genres, one first time director, a young actress; what could go wrong?
Evidently, not that much, but just enough to miss the mark. Whip It goes down and indy with the world of roller derby, a sport that was kind-of big in the 70s and is actually seeing quite the resurgence at the moment. It's not really about that though, it's really about Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), an indy rock girl trapped in small town Texas looking for a way to truly express herself. Her overbearing mother forces her into beauty pageants and her father is a push over. She has one best friend and gets made fun of by the "cool kids." Then, on a shopping trip to Austin, she discovers roller derby and falls in love. After trying out, and discovering she's actually really fast on a pair of roller skates, she makes the team.
Of course she hasn't told her mother or father about any of this, she's underage for the league and she's falling for a boy in a rock band. If you think you've heard it before, you probably have as the film is both a bit cliche and based on a book by the same name. However, the film's story (by far its strongest point) weaves around all out sports movie/coming-of-age-story cliche by mustering up its girl power message over all else. Bliss's mom is not an evil creature, simply a protective mother. The girls on the roller derby team aren't just gags, but women and the whole relationship thing takes a decidedly refreshing turn for a movie of this type. Yes, Whip It is definitely bathing in the pools of cliche, but it's making enough waves to make it hard to tell.
Barrymore on the other hand is hardly splashing at all. Unfortunately it shows that this is her first time directing, and it shows bad. The film feels almost slapped together from the random parts she was lucky enough to capture and the actual scenes of roller derby competition are seriously lacking. Now this is the first time I've ever seen actual roller derby put to the screen (Rollberball doesn't count, I assume), so maybe it's a really tough sport to capture, but I doubt it. There's no flow to her games and it's often hard to tell what is going on. In fact it would be impossible if Jimmy Kimmel wasn't narrating the entire match as the announcer. It's too bad as more cohesive roller derby sections could have really tied the film together.
On the plus side, all the actors seem to get what is going on. Page is at once likable and plucky and Kristen Wiig, as team captain, is once again enjoyable (she seems to be the new go to comedy gal). The overall "we're so trendy" vibe of the movie doesn't ruin it either, but it sure as hell is there. Of course, when you're filming in Austin it's most likely hard to avoid that, and Bliss's mother perfectly offsets it in a very human way. Somehow, through her muddled directing, Barrymore captures some actual truth.
As a whole Whip It can entertain and is a rare girl power film that is actually about girl power. While it has its many flaws, those either in love with roller derby or just looking to have a girls night out aren't going to come out of the theater disappointed. Whip It is good, it just needs to be whipped into better shape.
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