25 August 2010

Girl Prowess- WHIP IT Review

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
Some days, your Mad Prophet can't be arsed to get out of the house to see something as second-rate as Marmaduke. In such times, he often dusts off the DVD remote and gets onto a couple of films he missed in cinemas earlier this year.

One of those films is Whip It, the tale of 17-year-old misfit Bliss Cavendar. The discovery of a local roller derby league is the most exciting thing to happen in Bliss' small-town life, and she decides to compete and take control of her life, instead of parading through beauty pageants at the behest of her domineering mother.

Let's be frank- this looks for all the world like Bend It Like Beckham on skates. Nevertheless, I urge you to give it a look, because you might just be as surprised as I was. The director is Drew Barrymore, so you should probably be really surprised that this is actually a very thoughtful and fun teen movie. It doesn't exactly announce Barrymore as a major directorial talent, but it's more than good enough for 105 minutes of your time.

If you've never heard of roller derby, you're not alone. But hey, I've personally been left confused by films about much more mainstream sports than this. Barrymore at least knows that you don't know how to play this thing, so the film goes to certain lengths to explain the sport. It's played on roller skates, by girls in fishnet tights with punny names, and the rules are a lot easier to swallow than, say, Quidditch- a sport which has now featured prominently in five films.

In the way of the best sports movies, the sport itself is secondary to the characters. Bliss, excellently played by Ellen Page, hates the lack of purpose that comes with her stage mother's pushing and pulling, and this fairly obscure sport becomes her outlet. The match scenes aren't so much about girl power as girl prowess- there's the minimum amount of "Wow, Bliss, you're a born roller derby player!" that you see in other coming-of-age sports films, and more of a rigorous path to glory from her merely being light and speedy enough on the track to avoid being hit.

As could be expected from a female director, it's good that there's no leering for the sake of leering at girls playing a sport. However, maybe it was too much to use Jimmy Fallon as a mouthpiece for that "phwoaar" sensibility, making this one of the eight films (according to IMDB) that would be better for not having Jimmy Fallon in them. And then Fallon's match commentator is something of a cartoon character, but hey, he's used sparingly, and the best parts of Whip It are more than ostensible anyway.

In the background to Marcia Gay Harden's fine performance as Bliss' mother, there's Daniel Stern as Bliss' father, Earl. At first I wasn't sure why I latched onto his performance in particular, but later I realised that all of his character was being conveyed without those hackneyed heart-to-heart scenes that are the last resort of romantic comedies and weak dramas. He's wistful about having two daughters, both of whom are being groomed by their mother for pageantry rather than bonding with their dad, while the next-door neighbour is frequently seen with his two sport-star sons. With that in mind, the otherwise predictable conclusion becomes a logical development of his character.

It's this kind of background character work that elevates Whip It. Although the central plot is nothing we haven't seen before, it's being told differently. More than that, it's not too alternative- in its most exclusive moments, there's a little too much of the kind of hipster faux-knowing that has bogged down other films of this type. It's one thing to promote an indie band in a film, through the soundtrack perhaps, but when you stop to have a conversation about that band, it's no better than product placement, and it's bloody distracting.

And you'll want to pay attention to what's really going on anyway. For Ellen Page, it's not a huge departure from her role in Juno, but it's still a fine turn from one of my favourite actresses working at the moment. Similarly, Marcia Gay Harden does a severely toned-down variation on her performance in The Mist, as a bull-headed Midwestern mother who has great chemistry with her screen daughter. For the likes of Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat and Barrymore herself, this leaves a lot of comic mileage, which they gamely cover as the running time goes on.

With a likeable cast and a script that can be both moving and amusing at different junctures, I'm really wondering who would hate Whip It. It's not the best of the year or anything, but it's winsome enough that there's really nothing there to outright dislike. This kind of film could be, and has in the past proven to be, hell for a certain type of viewer, but instead it has broad appeal rather than speaking to a minority.

Does it matter that young women who don't know what to do with themselves might not listen to that band or wear that t-shirt? Nah, because it's a very charming family drama, of the type you'd see before "family drama" meant either a talking dog teaching a broken family the meaning of friendship or a Oscar-bait topical pot-boiler. This sits comfortably between the two, and it's a highly endearing debut that's well worth catching on DVD.

Whip It is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
If and when you see Whip It, why not leave a comment on the film and/or my review? Maybe you can help me figure out why more films don't go to the lengths that this one does to give its characters memorable names, like Babe Ruthless or Bloody Holly.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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