Thursday, October 15, 2009
The most effortlessly charming and confidently made big studio release I've seen in some time just might be Drew Barrymore's Whip It, the story (based on a book by Shauna Cross) of a teenage girl named Bliss (Ellen Page) coming into adulthood through joining a roller derby team. The well received drama has seems to have failed to catch fire at the box office but offers yards more genuine female bonding than artificially made contraptions like the Traveling Pants series and another 2009 Barrymore effort.
Whip It takes place in a small Texas town where there is even less to do than in the fictional burgh where Friday Night Lights is set. Bliss's mother (Marcia Gay Harden) uses children's pageants as her main source of amusement and while her younger sister (Eulala Scheel) brings home trophies on a regular basis Bliss manages to turn up for her events with hair recently dyed blue. Marcia Gay Harden is the first of the many things that are right with Whip It; it may be obvious that her steely and disappointed-with-life character turns out to have a softer underbelly but Harden never milks the numerous confrontational scenes she shares with an equally good Ellen Page. Page plays a young woman whose doesn't have the flinty self-confidence she was asked to show in Juno or the underrated Smart People. Bliss feels genuinely trapped by her life and a little frightened; only has friendship with the more together Pash (strong Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development) for comfort. A chance encounter with a flyer leads to a tryout and eventual acceptance into an Austin-based roller derby league; the travel requires lying to her mother and father (Daniel Stern, where has he been?) by telling them she is taking an SAT class.
Maybe it isn't surprising that someone who has acted as long as Barrymore should be able to get such good performances in her directorial debut, but even the small roles in Whip It are well filled out. Kristen Wiig (as a teammate) has a scene the likes of which I've never quite seen before in which she calls Bliss on her selfishness and reminds her of the sacrifices Mom and Dad have made for her. Barrymore has great fun playing the most violent skater and Juliette Lewis reminds us why she never stopped being worthy of our attention with a sassy performance as Page's chief rival. Among the gentlemen, I liked the light comic touch of Andrew Wilson (yes, one of those Wilsons) as Page's coach. Landon Pigg plays Page's indie rocker love interest and while their underwater love scene was strikingly filmed the courtship feels well acted but familiar until a very satisfying resolution.
The most radical thing about this well-made and heartfelt empowerment story is that while Bliss has moved on to the next phase of her life by the closing credits her future hangs unresolved. Sure, she's got roller derby and the girls but what about college? Or high school for that matter; Bliss tells her mother she wants to move to Austin. While her friend Pash gets accepted into Columbia I can see Bliss following a much more winding path. Whip It will be forgotten at awards time but Barrymore and Page succeed at telling an honest growing-up story that stops at a few familiar places along the way.