Posted by: – Oct 02, 2009
This may come as a surprise to many, but Whip It may be one of the first cinematic gems of the fall movie season. For her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore has set her focus on the tale of teenager Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) and the rite of passage she embarks on as she discovers her true identity in the world of roller derby.
As soon as the audience enters this world, we are introduced to an eclectic group of characters. Each member of the Hurl Scouts encapsulates a particular strength and bond that is further cemented by the creative nuances given to each of their personalities. One particular standout is easily Kristin Wiig. Wiig is typically noticed for her deadpan comedic work and she receives a number of opportunities to shine in moments that ask for that. What really comes as a surprise is her ability to play it straight when it counts. She offers an adult perspective for the young Bliss as well as this film’s typical target audience.
Along with Wiig, Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern play the roles of Bliss’ parents phenomenally. Harden steals every scene she is in and proves once again why she is always an actress to take notice of. If you have yet to see her acting prowess, just check out her twisted turn in The Mist. On the other hand, Stern is an acting presence that has felt long missed. The dynamic of his comic relief never feels wasted and is always effective. Even in moments that have been seen prior in trailers, within their given context the jokes maintain their effect. Stern excels in these moments. Here’s hoping this the first of many roles we may see him in for the next couple years.
Everyone knows Ellen Page from Juno and even though this film doesn’t require Page to stretch her acting abilities too far, she still earns the audience’s attention. At the start, she exists as a vulnerable teenager who only knows how to exist in a small-town setting. The outside world is still unfamiliar. Yet, it’s not the outside world that scares her the most, but the idea that the small-town world is all she will ever have to know. When Page discovers the world of roller derby and the subsequent bonding she experiences with her teammates, you are along for the ride and cheering as you go. In a film like Whip It, you may imagine that it would rely on Bliss’ success in the sport to earn it’s ending. The difference here is that you want to see Bliss succeed as a person and director Barrymore executes that point with incredible finesse.
Barrymore seems to really love her subject matter. Every scene that takes place during the midst of a game or practice is full of energy and wonderful momentum. It is always exciting. As many of the audience members departed from the theater, all I could hear were murmurs about the sport and craving more exposure to the game play as well as knowledge of the sport.
Another wonderful aspect to the film is how Barrymore showcases the city of Austin, Texas. She takes the wonderful landmarks of the Alamo Cinema Drafthouse as well as the legends of Daniel Johnston and interjects them successfully upon the canvas of Whip It. Barrymore obviously loves this city and in it’s city spotlights, it’s easy to tell why. There were even moments that the parallels between the city of Richmond and Austin were becoming prevalent. The motivations for most people that relocate to those cities respectively were similar compared to those of the characters in Whip It.
I would feel as if I missed a vital point if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. One of the my favorite artists is songwriter Jens Lekman and the choice to include a number of his songs throughout the entire film was something that made me grin each time. Even in the moments spent focusing on the love story between Bliss and her rockstar boyfriend, it was pleasant to hear Lekman’s “Your Arms Around Me” act as the score to their romantic overtures.
Whip It is a really fun movie. While leaving the theater, there was a thought that dawned on me about why it comes as no surprise that Barrymore waited this long to try out directing. She has been a Hollywood entity for close to thirty years now. A project like this allows itself to purvey the thoughts of a young Ellen Page trying to discover herself as well as offer an opinion standpoint from both of her parents. In these instances, I realized that it takes the growth and maturity of a person like Drew Barrymore to take on a film like Whip It. If she were to have made this movie at any point other than now, I think it may have suffered. As a result of the person she has become through age, Barrymore is able to successfully bring these characters to life on screen and make them believable. She has truly crafted that rare film which catches everybody off guard and can be enjoyed by just about anybody.
by Shannon Cleary