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Archive for April 12th, 2010

Whip It!

 

“Be Your Own Hero”

 

There was a time when comic coming of age dramas were sickly sweet and of little interest to all but a very small demographic. In recent years with movies like Juno all that has changed, it is therefore no surprise that Ellen Page has become the darling of the genre. Drew Barrymore’s directorial début Whip It! Really does have universal appeal that isn’t limited to a small age group.

Bliss (Ellen Page) is a stereotypical character in this type of movie, not exactly an outcast but she only has one real friend, she has a part time job that that comes with an embarrassing uniform but most of all she is trying to find herself. Pushed into competing in beauty pageants by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), she is torn between pleasing her mother and rebelling against what she clearly sees as a waste of time. Following a chance encounter in a cloths shop Bliss soon finds herself a member of roller derby team Hurl Scouts setting her on a collision course with her mother.

As Bliss now using the name Babe Ruthless (all the competitors use pseudonym based on witty puns) finds a certain camaraderie in her new team, the supporters and even her sometimes her opponents. More importantly she finds herself but in doing so she finds herself alienated from her friends and family. It is how she deals with these problems that makes the film and the character work. Bliss’ mother Brooke is trying to relive her glory days of competing in beauty pageants by proxy via her daughters, it would be easy to make the character who is overpowering and controlling into a villain, subtle direction, honest writing and a great performance by Marcia Gay Harden make for a more sympathetic character. As is so often the case for this type of movie it is set in a small town, in this case the fictional Bodeen, Texas. The small town and the escape from it acts as strong metaphor for growing up, leaving school or the family home or just breaking free of the constraints of childhood.

The supporting cast is full of recognisable faces: Ari Graynor (recently seen in Youth in Revolt and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), Zoë Bell (star of Death Proof and Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill), Eve (singer/rapper) Juliette Lewis (Oscar nominated actress turned rock star), Andrew Wilson (Older brother of Luke and Owen) and Drew Barrymore (no need for introductions!). There is also a cameo form Har Mar Superstar as a rival teams coach. Juliette Lewis and Kristen Wiig are both really good with the small parts they are given, it would have been nice to see them given a little more to do and develop their characters further but this is Pages show all the way. On the surface Bliss and her family are no more than Juno MacGruff in a different scenario. That sells the movie short, Bliss is less wisecracking and witty but more emotionally venerable than Juno, basically more real. She does however retain the actresses strength and sass, characteristics that come through more as the character develops.

What do you know about roller derby? Well I knew precisely nothing prior seeing the movie , to the best of my knowledge the sport hasn’t caught on in England. I am guessing most viewers will have little knowledge of the sport making it difficult for the filmmakers to know how best to inform the audience about the game without turning it into a contrived and boring description of the rules. The movie gets it just about perfect explaining the rules as we go along without breaking the narrative. Having looked it up the movie appears to be an accurate representation of the sport with the amateur DIY/leagues and participants with punk style and third-wave feminist views. The rival teams practising together is also a feature of the smaller leagues. The film should be accurate as the screenplay is by Shauna Cross based on her own novel Derby Girl, Cross is a real roller derby girl skating for the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and using the pseudonym Maggie Mayhem.

While it has become commonplace for actors to move into direction, it seems less common for actresses to make the jump. Sarah Polley, Jodie Foster and Salma Hayek all spring to mind, I’m sure there must be others but I can’t think of them off the top of my head. The big question is how does Drew Barrymore do? On the whole really well! The direction is well paced and letting the plot light story unfold nicely and with some really well handled scenes of sporting action. The direction does lack some focus with poor presentation of time, the supporting characters are underdeveloped and the roller derby scenes are a little brief. All these are minor concerns when put into the prospective of the whole movie. There are certain existential elements to the movie and some strong moral messages about family and teamwork but it never gets overly sentimental. It tries to push the personal empowerment angle a little too hard but gets away with it because it has real heart and integrity. That heart comes from Ellen Page, she has demonstrated in movies like The Tracey Fragments and Mouth to Mouth as well as the better know Juno and Hard Candy an ability to balance strength and vulnerability, this movie takes those ideas even further. An interesting directorial debut for Barrymore and another class performance from Page, I for one am interested to see what they will do next.

Four Stars out of Five

 

And if you are wondering the quote at the top of this review “Be Your Own Hero” spoken by Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) kind of sums up the whole movie!

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