Friday, October 02, 2009

Whip It

WHIP IT (Drew Barrymore, 2009)

In WHIP IT the unconventional Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) seeks an escape from her podunk hometown of Bodeen, Texas and the beauty pageants her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) enthusiastically signs her up for.

Bliss finds the answer at the roller derby in Austin. The fast, hard-hitting sport featuring strong, uncompromising women is a refreshing alternative to the images she knows. On the sly Bliss tries out for and wins a spot on the team and becomes a star known as Babe Ruthless. The secrets she keeps from her family and teammates can't remain hidden forever, though.

WHIP IT bears the personality that director Drew Barrymore has cultivated as an actress. The feminist coming of age sports dramedy has a sweet and sunny disposition bolstered by a proud independent streak. WHIP IT can lapse into sitcom mode from time to time, but other than Jimmy Fallon's grating work as a roller derby emcee, Barrymore is adept at getting good performances even when the material takes exaggerated routes.

Page's well-rounded turn as Bliss has grit, sass, and vulnerability, all of which are essential to the character striking out on her own path despite what her parents expect. Yet Barrymore doesn't let Bliss off the hook when she makes bad decisions.

Daniel Stern plays Bliss' father as a sensible man who knows to let his wife and child sort out their differences while also taking pride in his daughter's self-discovery. The moments in which he hunts and pecks at a keyboard to see Bliss on the roller derby website and later is able to display his joy to the neighbors are nice, small character flourishes. Harden initially comes off as the stereotypical uptight mother, but just like a child discovering that mom is more clued in to reality than anticipated, her character deepens.

The first-time director shows a nice touch for depicting small town life as well as parsing family dynamics. The Cavendar home looks and feels like a rural or suburban residence, and the relationships seem natural too. If Barrymore wishes to carve out a non-acting path for herself, WHIP IT certainly demonstrates that she has solid instincts.

Grade: B-

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