Judge Brett Cullum wants to go forward, move ahead, and whip it...whip it good!
"The last time I wore skates, they had Barbies on them."—Bliss Cavendar
Whip It is a sports film aimed at teenage girls who dream about being tougher than their peers. It has all the clichés you would expect from a picture of this genre, but it also has a lot of fun getting to the predictable final game sequence.
Facts of the Case
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page, Juno) is a girl who lives in a small Texas town that worships barbecue and beauty pageants, and she's dying to find her true self. She yearns to discover something that will fill the void more than a life of being a waitress at a local pig sandwich restaurant, and being forced to participate in debutante contests because of her obsessed mother (Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River). That chance comes when she sees a flyer for a women's roller derby league in nearby Austin. She sneaks out with her best friend (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development) to see a game, and decides she knows what she wants to do. Bliss auditions for the league, and wins a spot on the Hurl Scouts. Her fellow teammates include the colorfully named Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore, E.T.), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live), Rosa Sparks (rapper Eve), and the Manson Sisters (real life derby girls). She begins to learn all about true passion, and has to hide it all from her parents. Can she overcome a mother's disdain and successfully skate against her arch nemesis Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers)?
The rough and tumble girl power film is a directorial debut for Drew Barrymore who until now has been content to have a few producing credits to her name under the Flower Films logo. It is based on a far more lurid book written by Shauna Cross about her real-life experiences in a derby league in Los Angeles. Cross even adapted the screenplay, changing the setting and toning down a lot of the raunchier material to make it PG-13 friendly. Barrymore actually shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, because Whip It comes across as an amiable character study that smartly works in the roller derby mayhem to serve its purpose. There's a definite '90s grunge style to everything including the wardrobe and soundtrack, but that serves the material well. I couldn't help but feel Barrymore was anchoring the story in a past she identified with, rather than bringing the film up to current day trends.
Her lead actress does a fine job playing the girl who becomes Babe Ruthless. Of course Ellen Page by now after Juno and Hard Candy has her character of a smarter than average teen down pat. This is not a far cry from either previous character, although she is far less verbose or scheming than the other flicks called for. She plays Bliss honestly, and there's no unnatural stretching or overacting. One of my favorite scenes is where her character when confronted by her parents says "I am in love with this!," and we believe that to be one hundred percent true. The rest of the cast follows her lead, and there's quite a few understated moments where emotional confrontations are played out in a quiet key.
In contrast, the roller derby scenes are pretty dang raucous, serving a good counterpoint to the laid back tone of the rest of the film. Many professional derby girls were used, and the actresses were forced to learn to skate full out as well. Stunt doubles don't show up as often as you would expect. The whole thing feels authentic whenever they step out on to that rickety old track which was a loaner from a real women's roller derby league.
The transfer looks great, although the film itself is a bit murky thanks to some stylistic choices. There's a fine wash of grain throughout, and colors look well preserved. This has to be what the film looked like when it was shown in theatres. Contrast levels are impressive, never revealing any kind of digital manipulation. The Blu-Ray edition of Whip It doesn't have all that much in the way of extras. We are given nine deleted scenes in full HD, and then a three minute feauturette focusing on the author of the material. What a shame we don't get commentary from Drew Barrymore who is directing for the first time. It feels a bit lacking in the supplements department. Also included are a less than a minute look at the soundtrack, and then the inevitable Digital Copy with an expiration date somewhere in 2012.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The whole film feels a little bit safe. I mean we get all the formula turns in the plot, and the rough stuff from the novel never makes it to the screen in order to keep this at a PG-13 level. Barrymore had a great cast, and a brilliant production team, and then chose to make a good film rather than a great one. I loved watching Whip It, but in the back of my mind was a feeling that it could have been so much more if given a chance. But if the ultimate goal was to give teenage girls a movie to cheer for, then Whip It succeeds in being Rocky for the Hannah Montana generation. It's just a pity it didn't get to the Million Dollar Baby or Personal Best level of depth.
Whip It is great fun, and makes for an inspiring story that most anybody can relate to. It manages to mine that moment in life when you discover something you're good at that you love with abandon. It's about growing up, and learning how to take a hit and throw one just as well. Whip It works, and the cast does a great job making us believe in a world where women take on crazy names and beat each other up just to get around the rink ahead of the pack. The Blu-ray edition sports a winning transfer, but comes in second when it comes to extras.
Guilty of making me want to roll around the neighborhood in my Barbie skates,
Whip It is a girl version of Rocky in a ripped-up girl scout
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