Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Whip It is Good Girlish Fun

Whip it

Review by Chris Keller

As far as inspirational sports movies go, most would say the proverbial bar was set back in 1993, when Rudy, the story of the little Notre Dame football player that could, debuted to critical and financial success. Sure, a few worthy contenders have tried their luck at besting it, like Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, and The Basketball Diaries, but more often than not, the inspirational sports drama fails to incite any passion, other than desire to forget as much as possible. It would appear that it is an immensely difficult task to make an exceptional sports film when you take a look at the dozens of clunkers that populate the bottom of the barrel of the genre. Whip It! is the latest one to try and land among the greats, with Drew Barrymore – long-time actress, first-time director – hoping to steer this roller derby flick right into the hearts of millions. And while she doesn’t quite navigate it to Rudy-levels of greatness, this colorful and exciting film is heads and shoulders above useless junk like Rebound or Hardball.

Whip It! is easily the best roller derby movie ever made, but this is not saying much seeing as how one can count the number of these movies on one hand. It chronicles the journey of Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) as she goes from being forced into beauty pageants by her former beauty queen mother (a wonderful Marcia Gay Harden) and being picked on by the popular kids to rumbling with burly women twice her age on the roller derby track. Along the way, she falls in love, stands up to her oppressors, gains some friends, and loses some friends – well basically, she grows up.

Ellen Page has certainly proved to moviegoers that she’s an acting force to be reckoned with, seamlessly slipping into the revenge fueled adolescent in Hard Candy or a charmingly sarcastic pregnant high-schooler in her Academy Award nominated turn in Juno. Whip It! is Page’s first non-heavily dramatic role to date; maybe this is why she comes across as cold and might be accused of phoning it in. She doesn’t have that undercurrent of taut emotion threatening to bubble over at any time that has become commonplace in her acting. Luckily, Barrymore has surrounded her with a supporting cast that’s more than willing to pick up the slack. Kristen Wiig is terrific as Maggie Mayhem, a member of derby team Hurl Scouts, who becomes something as a second mother to Bliss, one that has a compassion and understanding that her biological one does not possess. Marcia Gay Harden knows exactly how to tiptoe the line of becoming a villain here; she only wants the best for her daughter but cannot seem to express it successfully. And Barrymore seems like she saved the fun role for herself as Smashley Simpson, a derby girl with no concept of rules and is rarely seen not punching or jumping someone.

Although Barrymore has tons of fun on camera, behind it she seems to have no real, discernible style of her own yet. The movie is as bland as can be whenever it moves away from roller derby, and Bliss’ romantic subplot with a band leader brings nothing to the table. Some plot developments are a bit of a stretch – why does her seemingly heartfelt and innocent boyfriend do a 180 in the third act? – but it’s all good whenever we’re seeing Babe Ruthless, Rose Sparks, Eva Destruction and the like tear it up on the track. Ms. Barrymore’s first swing at directing may not be a homerun, but it’s solid and at times, wholly enjoyable, and audiences would do well to stay tuned for what she comes up with on her next trip to the plate.

3 / 5 stars

Comments (1):

  • Matthew Starr @ 10/02/2009 ( 10:32:21 AM )
    I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Ellen Page and Marcia Gay Harden are definitely the heart and soul of the film. Any time they are on screen together I was completely involved. Two phenomenal actresses. I definitely see a bright future for Drew directing films. She can direct both action and intimate dramatic scenes very well. Spielberg was a master of combining the two elements in his movie.

    I would give it 3.5/5
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