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STUDIO: 20th Century Fox
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
* Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Opening
Generic motley crew team-sports film + generic teenage girl’s love’n’learn first romance film + generic teen rebelling against overbearing parent film = meh.
Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Daniel Stern, Drew Barrymore
Dir: Drew Barrymore
A sheltered teenage girl sneaks off and joins the rough and sexy world of roller derby, where she finds love, heartache and ultimately… herself. *cue triumphant coming of age soundtrack* Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut tries to be good at everything and thusly ends up being master of nothing.
Whip It is a film that doesn’t try to do anything new. That isn’t a crime. I like many movies that don’t try to do anything new (State of Play most recently). Thus Whip It is the kind of movie where I feel a guilty Minnesotan need to preface my criticisms by noting that I don’t think the film was designed for me. Which really just means that I’m not in the demo that might forgive the film its flaws. And while Whip It is pleasant and in moments charming, the film is nonetheless quite flawed. Aggravatingly so.
The story follows Bliss, (Page), a mopey alterna-teen living in Bumblefuck, Texas, where her no-fun mother (Gay Harden) forces her to partake in beauty pageants. Bliss goes with the flow but isn’t into it and isn’t happy. Then her life is forever changed when she spots some roller girls in a thrift store. She immediately lies to her parents and sneaks off to Austin to watch a roller match. She is hooked, and despite needing to be 21 to try out, she lies about her age and makes the team. The team sucks – as zany motley crews always need to – but Bliss loves it anyway. At one of the team’s parties she meets a sexy rockstar dude and they begin a standard romance. Of course the shit hits the fan eventually. The team finds out she isn’t 21, the rocker turns out to be a dirtbag, she alienates her bestfriend, and her parents find out she’s been lying to them. All is lost! Until it isn’t. Tears. Hugs. The end.
Whip It’s greatest crime may be how close it repeatedly comes to being a great (or at least really good) movie. It has the air of excellence, like food that smells and looks delicious but then surprisingly turns out to taste like anus.
I’ve long thought that roller derby was an untapped gold mine for a film subject. It has a lot of kinetic yet easy to follow motion, spurts of violence and the players are all sexy babes. Perfect for a Slap Shot or even Bring It On interpretation. It is the derby sections of the film where Whip It comes alive and feels relevant. Unfortunately Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross seem preoccupied with other elements in the film and the roller derby storyline gets half-assed. If the derby stuff wasn’t so much fun, I’d almost assume they were forced to put it in the film, that roller derby was their Venom (yes, a Spider Man 3 metaphor).
We are given a large mass of derby characters, some of who seem very interesting, but are left with merely teasing implications of the lives they lead and who they even are as people. Watching the derby portions of the film I was reminded of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “The Zeppo,” where we only follow Xander and then get these brief hilarious glimpses of what would normally be the A plot, now happening in the background. That’s what Whip It felt like to me, with Bliss periodically wandering in and out of a movie about roller derby that should’ve been the A storyline. A movie that I would much rather have watched.
Ugh. I keep trying to build up to describing the derby team (the Hurl Scouts), but it’s nearly impossible to do. Wiig’s character comes the closest to actually being a character, as a single mom who eventually offers Bliss some wisdom. But other than that I can’t tell you squat about the rest of the team. Barrymore’s “character” apparently has anger issues, but I didn’t pick up on that until literally the climax of the film. Zoe Bell’s entire personality seems to be having an accent. I was gonna make a joke calling Eve “the black one,” but that honestly implies more character than she has (there were no sassy wisecracks here). Juliette Lewis, the most realistic looking cast member, is wasted, and I kept forgetting that Ari Graynor was even in the film. Oh yeah, and at the beginning we’re introduced to two deaf rollers who we’re told are dangerous badasses. That scene is essentially the last we hear from them (no pun intended).
Jimmy Fallon succeeds as the derby’s MC (mainly cause the character seems like it should be minor), and the real champ here is Andrew “Future Man” Wilson as the Hurl Scouts’ coach. More than with any of the other characters, the tone of the film really clicks when Wilson’s on camera.
That’s just the derby though, which like I said is treated fairly offhandedly (the Hurl Scouts are in last place, but because they don’t care that they are, neither do we). Barrymore puts all the effort and emotion into the two other storylines: a) Bliss’ hometown relationships with her meddling mother, her lovable father (Daniel Stern), and bestfriend (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) and b) her doomed romance with a low-end rockstar (Landon Pigg).
The generic storyline involving her parents works fine enough, mainly because we’re dealing with such capable actors (you can feel Gay Harden and Page’s talents struggling to break loose from the dull material), but unless your heart melts just at the sight of Landon Pigg, the rockstar romance falls flat. Other than being a rockstar, Pigg never demonstrates anything to make him seem great or worthy of Bliss’s love (or even likable), which then makes the inevitability of him turning out to be, well, a normal rockstar, a dull revelation. What? He cheated on you on the road? Whooooaa. Hold the phone. No way. Realistic maybe, but not good movie.
Three separate worlds is just too much for Whip It to juggle. Personally I would’ve preferred a Slap Shot or Major League about the roller girls, but I understand that Barrymore and Cross wanted to tell Bliss’s coming-of-age story. Regrettably, the film is simply reaching for too much for what a slight tale it ultimately is. All the materials are there for a really fun film, but it never stays with anything long enough for me to care about it. All-in-all the film isn’t horrible. Just disappointing.
Whip It just kept teasing me, coming so close so many times, that I was left with aching cinematic blue balls. And I don’t like blue balls.
Some deleted scenes and a wisely cut alternate opening are the sole features. My screener came with the soundtrack, which I’d actually recommend checking out on its own. Some interesting selections from groups like The Breeders, Gotye, The Go! Team, Dolly Parton and a cover of “Never My Love” by Har Mar Superstar, who also makes a cameo in the film as a rival derby coach.
Check out that bitchin’ score, bitchez!