Related Articles: Movies, All

Whip It

…Real Good (Mostly)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

It’s hard to believe that Drew Barrymore’s career has stretched across three decades. Barrymore started her own production company, Flower Films, almost fifteen years ago, producing ten films in that time period. Directing seemed the next, logical step for Barrymore. Her first film as a director, Whip It, an adaptation of Shauna Cross’ novel, is a coming-of-age, teen romance, and sports comedy mash-up.

Always a canny performer behind the camera, Barrymore proves to be equally adept behind the camera, if not as a visual stylist, then as the director of material carefully calibrated to elicit a strong emotional response.

(Un)true to her name, Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page) is anything but blissful. She’s stuck in small-town purgatory, otherwise known as Bodeen, Texas. Her domineering mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), a former beauty queen, lives out her frustrated dreams through Bliss and her younger sister, Shania (Eulala Scheel). The introspective Bliss prefers Goth black to beauty pageant lavender, but half-heartedly competes in beauty pageants to obtain her mother’s approval.

Bliss’ football-obsessed father, Earl (Daniel Stern), has settled into middle-aged contentment by deferring to Brooke as often as possible. After school, Bliss works as a waitress at the Oink Joint with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), who dreams of attending an Ivy League university and leaving Bodeen far behind.

After Bliss comes across a flyer for a roller derby contest in nearby Austin, she cajoles a reluctant Pash to join her. Bliss finds near-nirvana while witnessing her first game. Bliss becomes smitten with the Hurl Scouts, semi-lovable losers nominally led by their cut-off jean-wearing coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson). Despite her inexperience and her age (she’s 17, minimum age is 21), Bliss wins a spot on the team.

Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and the Manson Sisters (Kristen Adolfi, Rachel Piplica), take Bliss under their wings. Not surprisingly, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), the leader of the Hurl Scout’s chief rival, the undefeated Holy Rollers, takes an instantly antagonistic attitude toward Bliss. Bliss also meets the indie-rocker of her teen dreams, Oliver (Landon Pigg).

Given Whip It’s the teen romance/coming-of-age angle, the themes are as unsurprising as they are obvious. Thematically, dreams postponed, denied, or fulfilled threads through Whip It. Everywhere you look, a character’s dream is either being postponed, pursued, or denied and, once or twice, actually fulfilled. Life lessons, some meaningful, some banal, are learned. Hugs are exchanged. Shallow themes, however, aren’t necessarily an obstacle to enjoying a film, at least not on a superficial level and that’s exactly what Barrymore provides with Whip It (which, to be fair, was probably her intent).

At roughly two hours, Whip It feels overlong. In adapting Cross’ novel (Cross also wrote the screenplay), Barrymore tries to do too much, include too many characters, too many genres, and too many subplots, giving short shrift to potentially interesting characters while giving too much screen time to lesser ones. But that’s typical for a first-time director, eager to prove her skills as a storyteller, but unprepared to make the hard choices necessary to prove herself more than merely competent, which she does, especially in balancing humor, drama, and action that, despite its lack of style, is always easy to follow.

Barrymore’s experience as an actress serves her well here. She elicits uniformly strong performances from a cast that includes different levels of experience (e.g., Zoe Bell, Eve) and talent (Marcia Gay Harden, an Academy Award winner). As Bliss, Page gives a warm, watchable performance, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen from her in the past. Bliss may not be as hyper-articulate as Juno, Page’s best-known character, but she shares all of her (mostly) endearing character quirks.

Page definitely needs to branch out into more demanding roles before, like Barrymore long ago, she’s typecast into a narrow range of roles that will evaporate once she hits her thirties (if not sooner).