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“Whip It”
Reviewer:
Chris Pandolfi
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Genre:
Drama
Release Date:
1/26/10
Special Features:

Deleted scenes / sneak peek

Review:

"Whip It" is surprisingly good in spite of itself, conventional as a sports movie yet mature in its development of character. It's also an entertaining spectacle, which is relief for me since I've never given much thought to women's Roller Derby (or even sports in general, but that's a topic for another day). ***

Drew Barrymore has done well to hype it as her directorial debut; she proves that she not only has the technical skills, but also the ability to move a story along through dialogue, pacing, and emotion. Having practically grown up in front of the camera, I think it's safe to assume she knows a thing or two about what a film needs in order for it to work. The first thing she did right was cast Ellen Page, who has repeatedly demonstrated just how versatile an actress she is. ***

She's no exception here. She plays seventeen-year-old Bliss Cavendar, who was raised in a middle-of-nowhere Texas town and gets by as a diner waitress. Her overbearing mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), a product of a very different set of standards, pressures Bliss into competing in beauty pageants, believing you have to make do with what you've got when you're young and attractive. ***

When Bliss is made aware of a Roller Derby match in nearby Austin, she decides to go and see what all the fuss is about. Lo and behold, she likes what she sees. She then meets Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), a teammate for the Hurl Scouts, and is encouraged to try out for the team. Maggie is one of several teammates that has adopted a clever nickname; some of the other Hurl Scouts are Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and the Manson Sisters (Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica). ***

Under the guise of taking an SAT studies class, Bliss sneaks away to Austin every week for practice. Conflict abounds: Not only have the Hurl Scouts never won a single game, Bliss' teammates are also unaware that she's underage (you have to be twenty-one in order to be considered for Roller Derby). ***

By the time she starts participating in matches, she develops a rivalry with Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), the confrontational leader of undefeated champions of Roller Derby, the Holy Rollers. Nevertheless, Bliss has never felt more alive. At long last, she has found something she loves to do, and she does it with people she enjoys being around. Eventually, she will have to find and maintain that delicate balance between her passion, her family, and her life back home, a process that isn't as easy as it might seem. ***

One could see this film just for the satisfaction of watching an uplifting, inspirational sports film, as has been done so many times before. For me, what made this movie so enjoyable were the characters, most so interesting and well developed that they seemed authentic. Bliss, for example, is willful and determined, yet not so haughty that she only seems like a spoiled brat. There's a remarkably tender side to her, and yes, some of it is reserved for her mother. ***

It would have been easy to write Brooke as a controlling, spiteful stereotype, but all of that is avoided--despite having unrealistic expectations and a dated ideal of successful womanhood, she genuinely cares about her daughter, and we sense that all throughout. The only character who poses a bit of a problem is Bliss' father, Earl (Daniel Stern), seemingly included just for the sake of physically and morally clashing with his wife. ***

Other characters function as quirky interludes, like Bliss' supportive best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), the Hurl Scouts' eccentric coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson), and the boisterous Roller Derby announcer, "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket (Jimmy Fallon). The screenplay even has room for a teen romance between Bliss and a guitarist named Oliver (Landon Pigg), who eventually swaps his coat for Bliss' Stryper tee shirt (which she claims is the only cool thing her mother ever gave her). ***

Most of these characters, the last one especially, are expected, as is the inevitable final match between the Hurl Scouts and the Holy Rollers. And yet, it all comes together smoothly, making for a fun and endearing film that you'll want to see through to the end. ***

The game sequences are quite effective on their own, not only because of the well choreographed skating maneuvers, but also because of the camerawork; every shot exploits the spectacle that is Roller Derby, gliding in time with the actors as they zoom over and around each other on an inclined track. Other shots reveal the grungy feel of a Roller Derby event, from the makeshift arena to the ramshackle benches to the screaming fans, most of whom look no older than twenty. This is interesting in and of itself, given the fact that, save for Bliss, all the teammates are in their early to late thirties; one of them even has a young son. ***

Special Features:

This DVD features nine deleted scenes, including an alternate opening. Also included is a sneak peek of other romantic favorites. The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 widescreen format and features Dolby 5.1 Digital sound in English and Dolby 2.0 Digital sound in French and Spanish. ***

Final Words:

Knowing these women are mostly in it for the love of the game, one wonders how long Bliss can keep playing right alongside them. But if there is a message attached to "Whip It," it has nothing to do with what the future may or may not bring; this movie is all about living in the now and loving every minute of it.

 

 
 
 
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