Whip It2009, 111 min.
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Well, well, well. Look who's back? That didn't take too long, did it?
Although not a part of a film series, I was invited back by The Paramount to attend a special film event. As part of their Hometown Hollywood promotion, 20th Century Fox is bringing some of its films back to the big screen in cities that made them famous. There are 14 such screenings across North America, and Austin had one of them.
The film? Whip It, the directoral debut of Drew Barrymore and starring current "it girl" Ellen Page.
As an added bonus, before the screening was a meet-and-greet with Texas Roller Derby Lonestar rollergirls. But not just any girls. Oh no no no. Tonight's party was with "The Cherry Bombs," a team that had just won the league finals on Saturday night. That's right. They are the champions, my friends. Rowdy girls and a "new-to-me" film (I had missed it in theaters last year) promised to be a fun time.
Walking back into The Paramount was like greeting an old friend. Ahhhh. What had it been, about two weeks? Ok, so I hadn't had time to be properly nostalgic, but it was comforting all the same. First stop, drinks!
I see there's a special beverage commemorating tonight's event. It's called "the cherry bomb" (natch), and is a cherry vodka sour. Sounds tasty. I'll have to get one later; time to go forth and document. The rollergirls were upstairs at the meet-and-greet and signing one-sheets for the moviegoers. I think the gals were just as excited and thrilled to be at the event as the patrons. It really was an amusing time for everyone present.
After all the autographs were done, The Cherry Bombs (the ladies, not the drinks) made their way onstage before the film (ok, maybe some drinks did also). There they were introduced to the crowd as they held aloft the Calvello Cup, a custom made trophy created annually for the championship team. As the ladies were introduced, we learned that a few of them were also stunt doubles featured in Whip It, making the night's feature even more appropriate.
Naturally, I took some photos.
The Cherry Bombs came down and sat in the audience with us, and then the movie began.
Whip It is a sports comedy/coming-of-age story that is infused with heavy doses of girl power. Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a small-town dreamer, stuck in the mud of tiny Bodeen, Texas. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is a domineering sort who forces her and her younger sister into an endless series of beauty pageants, and her father (Daniel Stern) is content as long as he has access to University of Texas Longhorn football. From the opening frames, it is clear Bliss has no desire for the pageant lifestyle, but also has no sense of direction. Along with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), they spends listless days in high school and at work, a restaurant called "Oink Joint."
During a trip to nearby Austin, Bliss spies some tough gals and is handed a flyer for their roller derby league games. After watching a game, she's recruited to come and try out. Unlike the old adage, ignorance is not Bliss... but curiosity sure is. Before long, Bliss discovers she has a talent for skating, and begins to shuffle her involvement in the league with her other responsibilities. And all the while, she's hiding all this roller derby stuff from her parents. Hmmm, it looks like she will have more than bumps and scrapes to worry about. Her biggest concern may be the bruised egos and hurt feelings as her allegiances shift to her new endeavor.
Personally, what I think deserves the biggest slam is the movie's script. It's just not very imaginative, and is wrought with a fair share of clichés. The main thing holding Whip It from greatness is that it's spinning too many plates in an effort to be the ultimate female coming-of-age story. I could have done without the subplots of the bitchy classmate or the dejected restaurant manager, and the romantic story was lacking. But despite the paltry list of ingredients, Barrymore has nonetheless cooked up a spicy and delicious cinematic meal for the audience to devour.
A combination of Drew's direction and impressive casting makes the characters much more lively and interesting than they should be. Again, the list of teammates reads like a list of stereotypes: the bitchy one, the single-mom, the crazy sisters (shades of Hanson brothers from Slap Shot), the ambiguous lesbian, etc. Yet I couldn't help but smile as I started recognizing the actresses. Hey, that's Kristin Wiig! Is that Eve? Holy crap, it's Zoe Bell! In fact, I was pleased with each of the roller girls' performances except one. Juliette Lewis is a bit disappointing s a one-note villainess. I mean, come on. She was Mallory Knox once upon a time, an actual natural born killer, not some catty and bitter chick in her late thirties.
I'd like to add that a big part of the fun during this screening was due to The Cherry Bombs themselves. The film had an "interactive audience" vibe to it, part commentary and part Mystery Science Theater. Whenever a sequence approached that had any of these Austin rollers on screen, they would whoop and holler. After a while, many more joined in the revelry.
Viewing Whip It that night was a unique experience, equal parts quirk and fun (probably mixed much like that vodka sour I forgot to sample). What elevated the event was how much of Austin was shown in the movie. Barrymore dug deep into her inner Richard Linklater here. Just as I recognized actresses as they surprisingly popped up in the film, I was also pleased to see familiar landmarks up on the screen. Hey, I know where that is! Hey, it's SoCo (South Congress)! Hey, there's Home Slice Pizza! And so forth. There were many goofy grins on my face as I watched Whip It, and I'm sure many others in the crowd did through our Austin-tinted goggles.
Since fun is the name of the game, I have to give Barrymore credit for crafting such a jolly flick about chicks. For starters, the soundtrack was really, really good. Perfect in setting the rough and tumble tone with a hint of silliness. And as much as I think the love story is a big waste of time (for such an obvious payoff), I was hypnotized with the love scene (set underwater in a swimming pool). There was a real sense of serenity and beauty in that sequence that almost made the rest of that subplot worthwhile. This, when combined with the performances she evoked (especially from harden and Stern) led me to ask if Drew has the right touch for directing? My magic eight ball says, "signs point to yes." I'm curious to see what she does next.
Yes, Whip It is a bit messy at times, but for the most part is a solid and cute little movie with a unique charm. The film doesn't just give Austin a peck on the cheek, it tattoos the love on its arm. While clearly most enjoyable to those who reside in the Texan capital, the movie's spunkiness is universally appealing. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by how good Whip It turned out to be. As a life lesson, the movie can be a little wobbly (kind of like me on roller skates), but when focusing on the fun, it really hits its stride. In a world of princesses and beauty queens, it's refreshing to see that smart girls can give a rebel yell too. Drew and the girls indeed know how to whip it. Whip it good.