Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whip It: A true whip-snorter

Whip It (2009) • View trailer for Whip It
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, drug references and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.1.09
Buy DVD: Whip It• Buy Blu-Ray: Capitalism: Whip It [Blu-ray]

OK, this is the most fun you can have on eight wheels.

Drew Barrymore makes a smashing directorial debut with Whip It, one of the best misfit underdog sagas in recent memory ... and mind you, we've seen quite a few lately.
Having earned a nickname -- Babe Ruthless -- and a place on the Hurl Scouts
roller derby team, Bliss (Ellen Page, center) prepares for a competitive move
with the assistance of teammates Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore, left)
and Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig).

The highly entertaining roller derby-oriented drama is deftly adapted by author and former Los Angeles Derby Doll Shauna Cross from her own novel, which just landed on my must-read pile. The reason: Given the pains Cross takes to flesh out every character in this script, her book must be even better.

In fairness, Barrymore and the cast also deserve a lot of credit. Rarely will you find so many parts filled so perfectly, and casting directors Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner deserve a standing ovation of their own. Consider: Once our mousy young heroine decides to re-invent herself as a roller-skating, bad-ass wannabe, who else but Juliette Lewis should play the snarling skate-babe who causes the most grief?

More than anything else, though, Barrymore and star Ellen Page  delivering even more on the promise she showed in Hard Candy and Juno  are to be congratulated for playing straight with a subject that invites the same reflexive howls of derision usually reserved for TV wrestling bouts. The "sport" of roller derby, generally little more than a punchline, certainly didn't gain any respect in the wake of the only other high-profile Hollywood production that leaps to mind, 1972's hilariously inept Kansas City Bomber. (Raquel Welch on skates. What more need be said?)

Barrymore and Cross obviously intended to change that perception, and they succeed with a heart-tugging first act that makes us embrace all the key players before roller skates are even seen, let alone worn.

Page stars as 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar, a shy and introverted girl whose life in the truck-stop town of Bodeen, Texas, swings between two ghastly extremes: waitressing at the Oink Joint, home of "The Squealer"  a massive sandwich that remains free of charge for any diner able to consume it in less than 3 minutes  and dressing up in cotillion-style gowns to please her beauty pageant-obsessed mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), who dreams of seeing the Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant crown on her elder daughter's head.

No doubt about it: Life is hell.

There are compensations. Bliss' easy-going father (Daniel Stern, as Earl) is the laid-back yin to her mother's uptight yang, and he has a few surprises buried within his still waters. In a film laden with sweet moments, one of the best is a father/daughter chat that occurs after Bliss discovers one of Earl's best-kept secrets: a revelation that is sweet in its own right.

Page is wonderful. She's absolutely credible, early on, as the sort of wounded sparrow so frequently the target of school hallway bullies, and so easily 'bullied,' albeit under far different circumstances, by her mother. The transition develops slowly; Page takes Bliss through fascinating stages that involve guilt and even giddy mischief  the liberating discovery that being a little naughty isn't necessarily a bad thing  en route to the gradual awareness that personal empowerment is under her own control.

Bliss has a staunch best friend: the much feistier Pash (Alia Shawkat, well recognized from TV's Arrested Development), whose brows knit in smoldering fury every time any local high school patrons stiff Bliss on the tip. Both girls work for the recently promoted "Birdman" (Carlo Alban), a former peer now in charge of them. This is the sort of small part that would amount to a single throwaway scene in most films, but Alban gets several opportunities to bring depth and mildly wounded dignity to his role.

Harden is hilarious, in a delicately scary way. When in beauty pageant mode, she gives Brooke a chill poise and verbal precision that are, we quickly discover, wholly at odds with her blue-collar day job as a U.S. postal carrier. And although we're inclined to dismiss Brooke as a Type A stage mom with a stick shoved up her fundament  because that's how Bliss tends to view her  in truth the woman has many layers. Watching each one exposed, as Brooke responds to this story's various plot bumps, is a revelation.

Clearly, though, Harden won this role due to a deliciously smoldering, eyebrow-narrowing, compressed-lip frown that could freeze blood at 50 paces. We get that look almost immediately, when poor Bliss hits a pageant stage without having been able to rinse out some bright blue hair-coloring: not quite the look designed to go with her expensive virginal dress.

God only knows what might have become of poor Bliss, were it not for a chance encounter with several members of the Hurl Scouts, a rag-tag team of scrappy underdogs in the nearby Austin roller derby league. Transfixed by this vibrantly liberating display of grrl power, Bliss confesses aloud that these women are her new heroes.

"Try out for the team," suggests the unexpectedly kind Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig). "Be your own hero."

More to spite the doubting and helplessly laughing Pash than anything else, Bliss accepts that challenge. Due mostly to her small size and considerable speed, Bliss makes the cut. She finds herself saddled with a new stage name  Babe Ruthless  and an unexpected enemy: the aforementioned Lewis, as Iron Maven. (Really, you gotta love the names!)

At about this point, most underdog films would concentrate solely on Bliss' knee-scraping, elbow-shredding efforts to bring some punk-rock spirit into her new alter ego, while trying not to get her teeth knocked out in the process. And yes, Barrymore and Cross give us plenty of track action, with Andrew Wilson providing mild comedy relief and constantly tearing out his hair as the weary, all-too-often-ignored Hurl Scouts coach, Brian "Razor" McGee.

Again, though, Wilson's Razor isn't a throwaway part; the guy genuinely cares for his team, and wants them to escape the purgatory of last place. Trouble is, he can't figure out a way to bring football-style playbook strategy into a competitive fracas that too frequently resembles a food fight free-for-all.

This central plotline notwithstanding, Cross' script doesn't confine itself to rib-smashing displays of female fury. Bliss has lied to her parents about this extracurricular activity, and lied to her new teammates about her age; she's also begging far too many extra-shift favors at work from Pash, who in turn is feeling neglected by her best friend's sudden interest elsewhere.

It's the worst crisis of all, for a young woman finding herself. Bliss truly loves her mother and her best friend, but she's finding a new "home"  albeit an extremely unlikely one  that can't help but pull her away from them.

To make matters even more complicated, Bliss loses her heart to Oliver, lead singer in a touring indie band. Oliver is played by actual Nashville musician Landon Pigg, which explains his character's effortless "fit" in the scruffy indie music scene. The nicer surprise is that he and Page share considerable blossoming-love chemistry, which Barrymore exploits unerringly.

Some things have to be acknowledged as a woman's touch, and that's true here of a whirlwind night of romance that builds to a dreamily erotic encounter in a swimming pool, and concludes the subsequent morning with a particularly poignant exchange of "keepsake items." You just won't see such sensitivity coming from male writers or directors, which is a true pity ... because, moment for moment, this five-minute interlude is impressively sexy.

Lewis is her saucy best as Iron Maven, the "mature" thirtysomething who knows that her days on the roller derby track are numbered, which makes her resent Bliss' young pup even more. Wiig's Maggie Mayhem is a seen-it-all mentor with an unexpected soft spot: precisely the sort of practical, street-smart person Bliss needs to counteract the pretentious advice she gets from her mother.

Barrymore casts herself as the klutzy Smashley Simpson, an enthusiastic but not terribly watchful free spirit who probably has gotten her nose broken more than the rest of her fellow Hurl Scouts combined.

New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell, so memorable in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, plays Hurl Scout "blocker" Bloody Holly. Although the entire cast obviously worked hard to buff up and talk tough, Bell's the only one who truly looks as though she could body-check three guys into the next county.

Underdog saga, love story, sports flick, coming-of-age tear-jerker ... Whip It covers all the bases. It's the sort of unexpected surprise that generates repeat business at the box office, and that's how you really know if a film is good: when you want to see it again.

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