Mark Reviews Movies


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Drew Barrymore

Cast: Ellen Page, 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 10/2/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The heroine of Whip It partakes in three different stories through the course of the movie. They are the underdog sports team, the young love, and the teen rebellion. These are each narratives that demand and intrinsically should have a lot of energy.

As presented here, they are all lifeless.

Each element of Bliss Cavendar's (Ellen Page) adventures in joining a roller derby league, falling in love with an aspiring, young rocker, and trying to prove to her parents that she wants to be a roller girl and not a beauty pageant queen limps along, never finding its own footing. Instead of discovering its own identity, Whip It goes for the easy way out, pandering to the familiar and cliché.

A big part of the issue is in Shauna Cross' script (based on her young adult novel Derby Girl (that title has since been changed to match the movie)), which hits all the basic, customary points for each of her protagonist's challenges and nothing beyond them to enlighten them or make them unique to Bliss. She's also content to shortchange the main points.

For a movie about roller derby, there's hardly any of the sport present. For a movie about young love, it amounts to little more than montages of the couple having fun. For a movie about teen rebellion, it sure does take a long time before Bliss does any open rebelling.

Any problems that arise are solved almost as quickly as they arrive and as easily as if they hadn't occurred in the first place.

Another large part is in the direction. Whip It marks the feature directorial debut of Drew Barrymore (who also plays a supporting role as one of the derby girls), and all the while she keeps a subdued tone to the movie. So subdued, though, that it quickly become monotonous.

The monotony makes sense in the early scenes, when Bliss goes along with her mother's (Marcia Gay Harden) wish that she participate in beauty pageants, works at a local diner, and otherwise yearns for something more out of life in Bodeen, Texas. Once she discovers the life of roller derby—trying out, impressing the coach (Andrew Wilson) with her speed, making the team the Hurl Scouts, becoming Babe Ruthless, and joining the likes of Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore)—that tone and monotony continue.

he resulting, occasional scenes of the sport make no sense, even though the coach gives Bliss and the audience a quick Derby 101 course. Barrymore films the derby sequences without a sense of the skill the sport should take (It seems that whoever does the most physical damage to the other team wins, although I know that's not right) or basic coherency. At one point, the annoying announcer (Jimmy Fallon) essentially admits the movie is on autopilot during the sequences (If you can't figure out what's happening, all that matters is the score, and we'll tell you that).

That plot is the stuff of which inspirational sports movies are made: a losing team rallying together with a new star player and new plays slowly progressing up the ladder until the big game against the undefeated rival team. Cross doesn't have many games in the script, even letting the characters talk about how one match went after the fact.

Meanwhile, Bliss falls for Oliver (Landon Pigg) during a few outings together, leading up to an awkward love scene in a pool, and the lies to her parents about the derby catch up with her. All the potential conflicts arise back-to-back, from Bliss being too young to play to a fight with her best friend (Alia Shawkat) to her separation from Oliver to a confrontation with her skating rival Maven in the big game.

It's all predictable, and the only thing barely holding the movie together are some good performances from Page, Harden, and Wiig, who begins to act as a surrogate parental figure for Bliss, giving her the right advice. There are a few scenes of the team having fun (including, I kid you not, a food fight, complete with pies in the face), and outtakes play over the credits showing the actors having a blast.

That sense of joy and excitement does not extend beyond the bubble of familiarity and tedium within Whip It exists. The potential for something unique is clearly there, considering the quirkiness of the sport, the cast, and the fresh eyes of a first-time director, but there's nothing to set the movie apart from its genre trappings.

I suppose it does accomplish something in its own right: It manages to make a sport about women on roller skates beating the crap out of each other tedious.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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