Friday, October 09, 2009

In Theaters: Whip It

Whip It poster and IMPAwards link
Motivated by what is now an unhealthy attraction to Zoë Bell, I went into WHIP IT expecting the light, fun story of a young beauty pageant queen becoming a roller derby superstar; I was hoping to see some lovely ladies, some mild violence, and a general asskicking attitude. Part of the movie is like that. However, a much larger portion of the movie is the rote, lifeless story of teenage rebellion against blander-than-life parents. (There’s also a third, smaller portion that made me want to buy a gun, but we’ll get to that.) Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is plagued by a failure to realize what its strengths are; it tries to do too much, and a game cast can only pull this confused material so far.

Indie-film darling Ellen Page is Bliss, a 17-year-old pageant champion and high school student, who works at a diner in the deadish-ended town of Bolin. She and her friend Pash (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Alia Shawkat) get wind of a roller derby in nearby Austin (well, it’s in bus distance anyway), and Bliss is dazzled by the sight of strong punk women rolling around the ring and throwing the occasional punch. Encouraged by star Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bliss tries out for the last-place Hurl Scouts, and her small size and speed make her a natural “jammer”- the person who has to pass all the other girls on the track to start scoring points. Dubbed Babe Ruthless, she hangs out with the much older scouts- Mayhem, Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Bell), and the Manson Sisters (Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica)- as they start actually following their coach’s calls (coach played by Andrew Wilson) and winning a few games. Naturally there’s a rival team, the top ranked Holy Rollers, headed by the diva-esque Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis.)

Honestly, if that were the entire movie, it would be great. A little cheesy and conventional, sure, but still good times. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of business with Bliss’ parents, especially her mother, former beauty queen Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). (Her father, played by Daniel Stern, isn’t nearly as strict, but he’s also the definition of henpecked.) Brooke doesn’t know about Bliss’ adventures (she thinks she’s taking an SAT Prep course), and obviously wouldn’t approve if she did. And then there’s Oliver (Landon Pigg), a charming hipster who’s in a small band and becomes Bliss’ first love.

Shauna Cross wrote the screenplay for this, based on her novel, and I hope there were significant changes along the way because otherwise she wrote one trite book. (Maybe her prose is really good.) The picture follows indie-film conventions to a fault, and while being predictable isn’t a fatal flaw, if we’re going to expect every wrinkle in the plot as it approaches we should at least enjoy the ride. The scenes of Bliss living her button-downed life simply aren’t entertaining; the direction is flat, the characters aren’t developed much, and there’s a fundamental lack of focus. It’s not quite the messy reality of Bolin life (I assume), it’s not quite a cartoon exaggeration for emotional effect, it’s just sort of boilerplate. And then there are the scenes with Oliver, which honestly seem like they were forced in when one of the producers decided they needed more hipster cred. We get the obscure references, the rare vinyl collections, and romantic “hijinks” that are far too spontaneous to be spontaneous. The indie-love material borders on self-parody, climaxing in a pool sequence that, while it does feature Ellen Page in her underwear, has the participants holding their breath longer than Shelley Winters in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Too much of this picture is just faux-quirky, and it feels prepackaged.

The picture does briefly come alive when Bliss becomes Babe Ruthless and the Hurl Scouts are out in force. Barrymore actually directs the sports sequences pretty well, and more importantly, these characters are fun. We want to know more about them. We get to find out a bit about Maggie, and Wiig does a great job with a weightier role than she’s usually given, and Bell and Eve and Barrymore are charming even if they don’t get much development. At times, Lewis’ character’s bitchiness seems arbitrary, but it does work out in the end. But I wanted to see more, to know more, to have more fun and less guiltily navigating around the fun. (And I must point out that Bell is criminally underused.) The roller derby scenes, and the wild times surrounding them, feel cut short compared to the more JUNO-esque material. (And as much of a backlash as that film has gotten, it at least had a story that went in interesting directions.)

The performances are uniformly good, there are some laughs, and the climax is genuinely exciting. Somewhere, perhaps only in the realm of the imagination, there is an alternate edit of this film, one in which the Hurl Scouts dominate the action and the business with Bliss’ mother wanting her to be in beauty pageants is just a subplot. There is so much raw material here for a really energetic and fun movie, and some outtakes during the end credits give us a hint of what might have been, and it makes one wonder why the filmmakers didn’t realize what the good parts of their own movie were.

Screenplay by Shauna Cross based on her novel
Directed by Drew Barrymore

Grade: C

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