Friday, October 2, 2009

Whip It

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is good.
I can honestly tell you that I didn't expect to be saying that at all before I saw Whip It.
A coming-of-age tale within a movie about an extreme sport set in Podunk, Texas, directed by an actor who hasn't ever directed before.
It doesn't seem like a winning proposition, but it makes it through with a defiant grace befitting its subject, women's roller derby.
Revolving around Ellen Page as a 17-year-old kid from a tiny town outside of Austin, this story takes a look at a roller derby league in Austin and does a nice job of explaining the sport and showing some of the allure it holds.
While it has the familiar trappings of a first-time director, Barrymore is clearly an adept storyteller. She hits some of the typical melodramatic tones that you would associate with a newcomer, but overall avoids letting the whole movie fall to cliche.
That seems to be hard for many directors to do with sports-themed movies in general, so it is impressive to see Whip It teeter on the brink and come back successfully.
Bliss Cavander (Ellen Page) is a high school student who becomes enamored with the roller derby vixens that she meets and decides to get involved when one of the women suggests that she come to try-outs.
Not surprisingly to the audience, but much to Bliss's own shock, she's pretty good at it. Fast and agile, but inexperienced, she earns herself a spot on the worst team in the league.
She also meets a cute boy who sings in a band at one of the derby after-parties.
There is the obvious spark between them and it barrels down that road toward cliche.
While there is a visually pleasant love scene underwater (which is one of the most well shot sequences in the film), the love story part of the movie makes Bliss seem weak and childish while the rest of the fiery independence and the roller derby make her seem tough and spunky, and a complete person.
Without divulging too much of the plot, I was happy to see Bliss come out strong in the end.
There is a lot of good acting throughout, and some mediocre acting mixed in, but Page and SNL's Kristen Wiig (yeah, I was shocked that she was a good actress, too) are definitely the best performances. Alia Shawkat and Daniel Stern needed some more screen time because both of them did well, but their characters seemed kind of flat.
I hope to see more from Barrymore as a director because she gave an impressive first effort that was enjoyable from beginning to end.
Whip It gets a B+

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