Saturday, 17 April 2010
'Whip It' review: Barrymore's entertaining directing debut
With her debut feature, ‘Whip It’, Drew Barrymore asserts herself as a capable filmmaker, after years in front of the camera and many spent behind the scenes as a producer (on projects as diverse as ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Music and Lyrics’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’). But whilst it is hardly surprising that someone raised in the movies should take so easily to making them, it is surprising just how much fun ‘Whip It’ actually is. Boasting the quirky, colourful aesthetics that have almost become the house-style at Fox Searchlight, set to a soundtrack selected by Randall Poster (music supervisor on all the Wes Anderson films) and starring Ellen Page (of ‘Juno’ fame), ‘Whip It’ is well-placed to become an firm “indie” favourite, and deservedly so.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar who becomes “Babe Ruthless” when she takes up the alternative, amateur, all-girl US sport of roller derby. Dragged to beauty pageants by pushy mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss sees roller derby as a better match for her personality and soon befriends a group of social misfits of varying ages and backgrounds, who are a better match for her quirky, off-beat personality than the fellow students at her high school. She lives in a small Texan town and also sees roller derby as a means of escape to the more exciting and vibrant life possible in the state capital, Austin. This teenage coming of age story takes place, to pleasing effect, alongside the well-worn clichés of the sports movie genre (the rival team; the tough but fair coach; shots of the scoreboard; the big final game; etc).
The best thing about ‘Whip It’ is the sense of fun which runs through the film, aided in no small part by a terrific cast of supporting players: Jimmy Fallon is a charming presence as the derby commentator, Juliette Lewis was born to play Bliss’s sporting rival “Iron Maven” and Daniel Stern is a suitably warm and likable presence as Bliss’s father. The real comic highlight is Andrew Wilson’s brilliant, understated comic performance as the girl’s coach “Razor”, which feels straight out of a Wes Anderson movie and is a consistent delight. It is nice to see him in a sizable role and here he makes his biggest impression since he turned up as “Future Man” alongside his brothers (Owen and Luke) in 1996’s ‘Bottle Rocket’. It is also nice to see Drew Barrymore give herself a small role as “Smashley Simpson”, the most violent member of Ellen Page’s team of roller derby heroes.
There is a palpable sense of joy throughout this movie, which resolves one key confrontation with a light-hearted food fight (cinema’s first since ‘Hook’ in 1991?). One of the great things about ‘Whip It’ is the way in which the derby girls swing elbows and break each others noses with real intent. It is great to such a tough attitude in a film primarily aimed at young girls. Bliss’s decision to give up pageants isn’t simply cosmetic, as it might be in so many other films (probably symbolised by dark eye makeup and wrist bands). Here it’s actually backed-up by an attitude, which is (crucially) about standing up for yourself, as opposed to being anti-social and starting fights.
Where the film suffers is in its third act in which the pacing takes a dip and the laughs cease during the inevitable “down” section of the movie where everything contrives to go wrong all at once for Page’s plucky hero. Some of these threads are necessary for the story of the film: most notably Bliss has to convince her mother that she should be able to take part in roller derby rather than beauty pageants. However, the thread concerning the temporary break-up of her friendship with Alia Shawkat’s character is a major drag and undermines the rest of the movie, which succeeds in convincing us that they are really best friends (who you’d have thought wouldn’t be so prone to irrational implosion). The other low point is the male love interest Oliver, played by Landon Pigg (apparently a singer-songwriter new to acting). Whilst the individual tender moments written for the romantic scenes are fairly sweet, Pigg is just too wet-behind-the-ears and the film becomes a lot less enjoyable when he is onscreen.
Overall, ‘Whip It’ is a confident and thoroughly enjoyable directorial debut for Drew Barrymore. It manages to have an authentic “sisters doing it for themselves” feel, without being tacky or patronising and whilst it didn’t perform amazingly well in the North American Box Office, ‘Whip It’ may eventually find an audience later on (on TV and DVD) and stake its claim for “cult classic” status. But before then: if you’re up for a good time at the pictures, you could do much worse then to buy a ticket for this funny and charming film.
'Whip It' is on general release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.