Saturday, 6 March 2010

Whip It: Juno meets Gertie...on wheels.

Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. And storywise it is nothing original whatsoever.

But that’s perfectly fine as the one time E.T. moppet, then hell raiser, then acclaimed movie star’s first stab at film direction is a hugely entertaining, quirky and affecting little comedy/drama that shows its newbie director has a potentially big future behind the camera lens.

Seventeen-year-old misfit Bliss Cavender (the always great Ellen Page) lives in the tiny Texan town of Bodine with her mum (the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden) and her dad (holy crap it’s Daniel Stern) and her little sister (Eulala Grace Scheel – real life daughter of Marcia Gay Harden). Bliss spends her time either at school, or working as a waitress with her best friend Pash (the funny and charming Alia Shawkat) or attending witless beauty pageants to please her mom who used to do the same in her youth. Then, one day, while on a shopping trip to Austin, Bliss catches sight of a bunch of cool looking girls on roller-skates giving out flyers for a Roller Derby league. Bliss is fascinated. And so, lying to her parents about what she’s really doing, she goes along for a look-see. And loves it. So much so that she gets invited for tryouts for the Hurl Scouts, the local rag tag, underdog roller derby team. Due to her impressive speed on wheels (plus lying about her age), Bliss makes the team despite her general lack of aggression. Now a full fledged Hurl Scout she adopts the moniker Babe Ruthless and quickly bonds with her new teammates - a gaggle of rather eccentric women in their twenties and thirties who don’t seem to really care anything about winning much to the exasperation of their long suffering coach. However with the addition of Bliss the Scouts do now actually start to win…much to their surprise. This soon leads to some big time rivalry in the form of Juliet Lewis (on good bad girl form) as Iron Maven, leader of the top team in the league, who has takes an instant dislike to Bliss and her rising Roller Derby stardom.

Now, its gotta be said…

The Hurl Scouts are a fantastic creation!

Every single one of them is a wonderfully drawn character with a daft-yet-funny team name, the only names we get to know them by. But the standouts are Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), the kindly den (single) mother of the bunch who takes Bliss under her wing and helps her out when things get tough at home. Then there’s the awesome Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) who is just so crammed full of excitable aggression that in virtually every game she ends up being sent off for beating up a rival player after being smashed bloodily in the face or sent flying on the roller rink. And a special mention goes out to Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly. It was great to see Zoe onscreen again after her cool role in Tarantino’s Death Proof where she essentially played herself, a tough-as-nails stuntwoman. Zoe’s not the best of actresses but she does have an undeniable screen presence and an easy, likeable charm to her. Plus you just know she could kick your arse well and truly.

And so with Bliss/Babe Ruthless now a crucial part of the Scouts new found success the stage is set for an extremely fun and funny coming of age/underdog tale. Can Bliss continue to help the Scouts win? Will her new life alienate her best friend, Pash? Will her lying to her parents about what she’s been doing as well as to her teammates about her real age come back to haunt her? Will Bliss’s parents - especially her mother – see that she is truly good at something she loves and allow her to live her own life and not the one they want for her?

Like I said before, this is nothing original. And it doesn’t matter one jot as the execution of Whip It is wonderful. The script by Shauna Cross from her own semi-autobiographical novel is fun, spiky and also quite insightful in its own way. It is filled with some great characters and moments that Drew Barrymore as director translates expertly on to the screen in her own slightly offbeat way. I’ve always loved Drew. She’s a talented comedy actress full of natural charm and charisma who has now proven with Whip It that she is just as adept at staging and directing comedy as she is at performing it. But amongst all the funny she also finds the moments that work as pure cinema and pure emotion. Two that jumped out at me were when Pash and Bliss dance together around the diner to Dolly Parton’s Jolene…only making up their own lyrics about their sucky town. And a beautifully shot and edited love scene in a swimming pool using only music and no dialogue. There are plenty of other great moments too including everything with Marcia Gay Harden as Bliss’s mum. For at its heart Whip It is a story about a mother and a daughter who have to come to terms with each other. The mother must learn to let go of her growing up child, to let her begin living her own life. And the child needs to learn to listen to the wisdom and to the emotional maturity of her mother, which is there albeit hidden under a layer of hypocrisy (e.g. the running gag about mum hiding her smoking). And it is here that you can see thematic parallels to Drew’s own troubled relationship with her own mother, the stuff of tabloid news now for years.

The visual style of the film is also something worth mentioning. The story is clearly set in present day. However the aesthetic mixes in the 1970’s (music, hairstyles, décor, record players, 8 track tapes etc.) with our contemporary world outside. There is a distinct indie vibe to the whole thing including the sorts of music used and the quirky feel to the direction. This is enhanced by the stylised and colourful photography by regular Wes Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman. Put this all together and you have a very funny and warm comedy/drama that stands with one foot firmly in the mainstream but the other tiptoeing lightly in indieville.

Sadly Whip It made no impact at all at the US box office last year where it grossed a paltry total of $13m despite gaining positive critical reaction. Perhaps the cheesy idea of Roller Derby put people off. Or maybe they found the film just a bit too quirky for mainstream audiences. I dunno. But hopefully Whip It will eventually find itself an audience. It deserves to. It’s a hugely enjoyable little flick that had me smiling and laughing all the way through.

Way to go Gertie!

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