Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Whip It" Review

"Whip It," the directorial debut of actress Drew Barrymore ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua," "E.T."), is a film about full-contact women's roller derby, populated by characters with names like 'Maggie Mayhem,' 'Babe Ruthless,' and 'Smashley Simpson,' but is unsuccessful in co-opting the gritty appeal of the lifestyle. The movie's breezy affability and charm are evidence of its artistic shortcomings, and for a film so forward with its girl power, my man-ass could stand to have been more kicked. I should be emasculated. The world of roller derby should feel coarse and uninviting or at best kinkily arousing. Unfortunately, "Whip It" didn't really elicit any of those feelings in me.

The film is frilly and formal, with a shopworn foundation that roots the narrative in the cliched quirk of the modern independent romantic comedy, though the subject matter screams to be a rough-around-the-edges outcast. To be fair, there's a degree of intentional contrast to protagonist Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page, "Juno") and her double life--pleasing her mother as a beauty pageant queen, and kicking ass as the Jammer for the last place 'Hurl Scouts.' But the opening scene, where Bliss appears before her mother and a mortified panel of judges with recently dyed blue hair, serves as a perfect metaphor for the film itself, in that its approach to the counter-culture is a surface-level aesthetic rather than a complete attitude. Blue hair is about as wild as it gets.

"Whip It" does build kinetic energy during its lively roller derby sequences, with fast, free-flowing camerawork that highlights the good-spirited brutality of the sport. Jimmy Fallon is even amusing as commentator 'Hot Tub' Johnny Rocket. However, the exhilaration of these sequences is matched by the banality of the rest of it: girl falls for lead singer in indie band, has waitress job at quirky small-town diner with quirky shift supervisor, consorts with precocious teens, and comes home to semi-broken family. The Americana is almost suffocating.

But removed from the context of the current cinematic landscape, there's nothing especially wrong with "Whip It," it's just not surprising. Ellen Page's performance is completely earnest and convincing (also not surprising), and the film has the best of intentions. Barrymore proves a proficient if inauspicious director, with enough talent to warrant at least another go around.

Her debut film is well meaning and inoffensive, with the sort of genial conceit that even our enemies aren't so bad, and forgiveness flows as fast and as senselessly between the characters as white water. Even the scumbag indie vocalist whom Bliss believes to be double-timing her may or may not have been guilty, and her reaction to his attempt to make amends is disappointingly timid. The film is intended more as a lightweight, feel-good empowerment piece than a challenging or realistic examination of the subject matter, which frustrates me but may delight some.

It's a movie for modern moms and daughters, which I don't mean to offer as passive aggressive sexism, as the film is perfectly entertaining for a gender-neutral audience, and its flaws aren't identifiable from a male perspective so much as they are from a unisexually artistic perspective. A great piece of art challenges the preconceptions of the medium, which "Whip It" decidedly doesn't. Rather, the film celebrates the bond that exists between Bliss and her matriarch (Marcia Gay harden), individuality, friendship, and the classification of family. It's sweet and palatable to both rebellious, headstrong teens and stiff but loving parents, which is an admirable but unambitious accomplishment. If you want to make a genuinely challenging film about gender identification and roller derby however, you'll have to dispense with the niceties and the formula and throw a punch.


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