Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whip It

"Follow Your Blisster"

Drew Barrymore's first directorial effort "Whip It" is an odd little mixture of Afterschool Special and Grrl Power, seemingly contemporary but channelling the 70's. The titular "It" girl is played by Ellen Page, now riding the wave of "Juno." Her character, Bliss Cavender, is living a tractor-pull life in Bodeen, Texas, yanked on one hand by her letter carrier mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to follow in her sensibly-glam high heels on the beauty pageant circuit, or following the pull of the negatively glamorous life of a roller-derby queen in a D-circuit league in Austin.

Conflicts ensue. The one life is safe and conforming, the other is dangerous
and compromises her home life to pursue it. But, Bliss rationalizes that life IS compromise and begins lying through her mouth-guard to achieve it.

It's easy to see why: Mom is a harpee chewing the cud of her glory-days, and Dad (
Daniel Stern) is a good-natured lug who checks out to avoid conflict. Her school mates are cretins and her best buds' are her co-workers at the BBQ Joint with a dry-wall pig on the roof. "Are you being 'alternative' now?" asks a smarmy cheerleader (ex-friend) at her High School. "'Alternative' to what?" Bliss lamely asks. It's hardly Marlon Brando's challenging "What d'ya got?"; Bliss doesn't even know there's another choice.

But roller-derby seems a much more appropriate matriculation to life than beauty pageants. It's all elbows and knees and nose-checks while maintaining your balance going as fast as you can. You're among a group of competitors with grit in their gears and scar-tissue in their joints and they announce their aggressive tendencies with nom de guerre like Eva Destruction, Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly, and Jabba the Slut. Bliss becomes "Babe Ruthless," and since the circuit's too small to say "a star is born," a satellite is launched into a tight circular orbit.

Her double life invariable costs her, though. 'Round about where the third commercial break should be, her best friend gets nicked for an open container violation, Bliss does the same (metaphorically)
with her slacker boy-band-toy-friend, her under-age status in the league is threatened to be exposed, and she has a hissy fit with her parents. Bliss is adrift without a breeze or a paddle and it's tough to be captain of your fate with neither.

The story weeps for a happy ending and Barrymore, to her credit, is stingy with it. Bliss doesn't achieve full happiness, no fireworks go off in triumph, and she takes her lumps as lessons learned. That's the difference between Young Adult Fiction in the Movies and Adult Fiction in the Movies.

So, how did our little Drew do, directing? Not bad, actually. "Whip It" doesn't exactly snap across the eyes—there are repeated shots to fill up narrative cracks she didn't anticipate, she depends a bit too much on the lame Jimmy Fallon to provide humor in the action portions, and she leaves Page a bit high and dry in giving her motivation in some scenes. But if it's technically not smooth, the voice is uniquely Barrymore's, raucously tom-boyish, girlish in Tarentino's field of girlish. It's a woman's world; boys are just allowed to play in it.

Which makes her film different than 99.99% of films out there.

And instead of playing it safe, she begins her career calling the shots by diving deep into action territory and staging some mock-brutal roller-derby matches that are intricate in planning and
a bit too careful in execution, like staging a car-wreck where most of the cars aren't moving. That's rare, though. It can't be easy duty filming a roller derby and Barrymore gets the excitement right most of the time. And, good general that she is, she puts herself in the middle, not letting her actresses do anything she wouldn't. Her "Smashley Simpson" takes most of the falls in the film and Barrymore doesn't fake the crashes. The actresses look like they're in danger, but rarely display anything but grit and it's a well-chosen cast. Eve, SNL's go-to gal Kristen Wiig, Tarentino's favorite stuntwoman Zoe Bell, and Juliette Lewis (Welcome back, Juliette!*)all display a casual toughness and nurturing bonding that makes Bliss' attraction to them seem natural and reflects Marcia Gay Harden's more austere version of it. It all makes one anticipate her next movie with fingers crossed.

"Whip It" has the feel of a well-skated over track: worn but slightly groovy, thin in parts but enough momentum in it to keep it interesting.

"Whip It" is a Matinee.

* Juliette Lewis is one of my least favorite actresses, but this role is rough, tough and mean and Lewis plays it unsympathetically without her usual mealy-mouthed mannerisms and pulls it off beautifully. Her character demands respect and the actress imbues why. Bravo.

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