Monday, April 19, 2010

Review - Whip It

Making a sprightly directorial debut that reflects the bubbly persona she has displayed on screen for nearly three decades, Drew Barrymore's Whip It has an infectious sense of fun. Adapted by Shauna Cross from her own novel, the film is a portrait of female independence and self-realisation, with teenager Bliss (Ellen Page) rejecting the pageant lifestyle so beloved by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and embracing the rough-and-tumble world of the roller-derby. Here she finds an exhilaration and camaraderie with her teammates that eclipses anything her humdrum life can offer, and without her parents' knowledge, Bliss becomes one of the league's biggest stars. The drama that subsequently occurs is entirely predictable – Bliss falls in and out of love, rows with her parents, and has her dream threatened just as her team's final game approaches – but Whip It proves that the manner of a story's telling can compensate for any amount of clich├ęd plot elements.

Whip It largely succeeds because Barrymore knows exactly where her strengths lie as a filmmaker, and she exploits them effectively. Although she occasionally overreaches (an awkward underwater love scene, for example) her handling of the material is usually confident and appealingly vibrant. The roller-derby scenes are directed with an energetic rush, and I was often caught up in the action even though I'm not sure I ever fully understood the rules of this rather hectic and baffling sport (the tutorial sequence Barrymore includes didn't really help). Generally, however, Barrymore is smart enough to trust her cast. She has filled the film with good actors and she lets them provide the story with its motor. The ubiquitous Kristen Wiig shines as one of Bliss' teammates, while Alia Shawkat enjoys some fine moments as her best friend and Juliette Lewis is much less annoying than usual as the closest thing this benign film has to a villain.

But for the more emotional sequences, Barrymore leans heavily on two performances in particular. As the mother who initially comes off as something of a caricature, Marcia Gay Harden gives an outstanding performance, full of nuances and textures that only become visible over the course of the movie, and she shares some extremely touching scenes with Ellen Page, creating a mother-daughter relationship that feels complicated and real. For her part, Page delivers another fine display; she's capable of portraying both the guts and vulnerability that go into her well-drawn character, and it's easy to cheer for her as she makes the right choices about her future towards the end of the picture. We also cheer for her because Bliss is an all-too-rare figure in contemporary cinema. She is a female character who follows a specific path not because of a man, or because it's the accepted thing to do, but because she is good at it and it makes her feel great. In a couple of months, Sex and the City 2 will be released in cinemas, and I wonder how many of the millions of women who flock to that picture will care that they are watching characters who seem to be defined solely by their clothes and their relationships? The lack of decent female representation in cinema is a regular lament, so when films like Whip It come along, please make an effort to seek them out.