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Whip It

dir: Drew Barrymore
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I never really thought I’d be writing a review of a film that has Drew Barrymore listed up top as the director. It’s not because she often acts, depending on the circumstance, so bubbly that you’d think she’d never be able to get it together long enough to call action, sitting not in a director’s chair, but in a bubble bath.

No, it’s because there’s a disconnect between her public persona (super girly and bubbly), her film personae (super girly and bubbly), and what she’s apparently like behind the scenes in the turbulent world of film production (a don’t-fuck-with-me-or-I’ll-destroy-you player).

More power to you, sister. She’s got money and sway, so surely nothing can stop Drew if that’s what she wants to do?

I guess making a flick about women’s roller derby manages to satisfy two of her main criteria for what she wants to project to the world about herself: being girly and tough at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I find it very endearing, the way people find virtually everything this woman does endearing, and have done so ever since she was an adorable little moppet who started abusing cocaine at age 12.

Whip It is a coming-of-age story, shoe-horned into the safe dimensions of the sports drama, complete with unsupportive parents whose approval has to be earned by the final reel, a vicious rival (Juliette Lewis, who looks like she’s been hanging out with Courtney Love a bit too much), and montage after montage of training. Even better, from the sports movie perspective, it features a sport virtually incomprehensible in its arcane, though probably basic, rules. I have less of an understanding, after having watched this flick, of how the sport works than I do about the rules of Quidditch, that curiously made up and nonsensical game from the Harry Potter world of junior wizards.

Unlike quidditch, however, this is about real girls skating hard and beating the crap out of each other. An average teenager called Bliss (Ellen Page) finds solace and meaning in the company of some very rough and very gorgeous roller girls competing in the most made up of made up sports. Despite being tiny, and looking like my three-year-old daughter could knock her over, Bliss feels an affinity for the sport, where her speed is apparently an advantage against women three times her weight and double her height and age.

There’s no merit to fussing over the details. The beauty of the story is that it doesn’t focus on someone who’s trying to get out of poverty and anonymity by pinning all her hopes and dreams on the one big win that propels her to fame and riches, thus justifying herself in the eyes of her family and peers. Bliss is not much of an achiever, where professionally (she works in a fast food joint), educationally or athletically, but she is motivated to give it her all.

She bonds with a team of women who, including a sloppy, violent drunk played hilariously by Drew Barrymore herself, accept her without really knowing anything about her. The other girls on the Hurl Scouts team are mostly an amalgam of the vaguely punk looking chicks you might have seen at gigs over the last thirty years, though they’re played by recognisable actresses. They’re not entirely convincing as a group of alterna-chicks bonding over bloodshed (not to get all race conscious and such, but is singer/rapper Eve there for any other reason than ticking some demographics box?), but they’ll do. Including the violent, deaf Canadian Manson sisters, who are the only real roller derby exponents in the flick, I’ll wholeheartedly accept them as positive female role models.

Because that’s what, and all, I really take away from this experience. Even with the problems of a plot put together by a formula, which is so predictable and rote that nothing happens you couldn’t predict before watching, and maybe because of those problems, the camaraderie between Bliss’s team members, and Bliss’s clear adoration / adulation of them really shine through. The awkwardness of many scenes, and the downright amateurish way that some of the scenes are filmed and acted don’t detract completely from what I enjoyed about it.

Ellen Page is becoming ubiquitous at the moment, which is great. She’s a great little Canadian actor who can punch way above her weight class, and I applaud her for it. She was probably the best thing acting-wise in Inception for me, because she’s got a decent handle on expressing herself in a believable way despite the absurdity of the situation, whether it’s here, in the delivery room, or in the depths of someone’s subconscious.

There are a lot of scenes here that she steals from older, more experienced actors, mostly because it seems Barrymore wasn’t sure how to elicit the kind of delivery from them that she needed, but just let Page do her thing. There’s something about the scenes with Bliss’s parents, played by Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern, that just flat out don’t work, despite the fact that at least one of them can act. The mother especially is saddled with a repugnant role of a stage/pageant mother desperately trying to live through her daughter, despite the fact that the daughter is clearly unsuited to, and uninterested in those godawful pageants, where only the most artificial and mannequin-like dominate.

How a four-foot bundle of sarcasm is meant to achieve her vicarious victory is never made clear. But the scenes of the middle-aged mother shuffling around delivering the mail are far more believable.

There’s plenty of other bad acting, including the terrible actor who plays the team’s coach, but the absolute nadir comes in the form of the terrible chap fronting some sub-Coldplay band, who looks like a dorkier Chris Martin, even. Back off, Gwyneth Paltrow, this chap Langdon Pigg is spoken for!

The dork is terrible. I hope his music career picks up, because he can’t act for shit, and every scene with him made me hope Bliss would realise she was better off hooking up with one of the girls from the team. Or even her alcoholic best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), who, despite them playing teenagers, looks like she’s not a day over 34. And she's destined for back problems, definitely.

With all this acting foolishness, you might still wonder why or how I derived enjoyment from watching it. Well, I just did. Page is an enjoyable actress to watch, and I enjoyed watching her throughout.

I especially liked watching her nut out the course which she wanted her late adolescence to take, and what she derived meaning from. Tiny as she is, I did get this thrill out of watching these women speeding and crashing around the track. Even if I didn’t get what was going on some of the time, I appreciated the energy, and I can’t think of a better manifestation of girl power than these scenes, even if it is contrived and packaged.

Sure, you have every right to roll your eyes if I start going all first year university, and say that there is a clear, positive, feminist message in this film (or at least in those scenes) that is sorely lacking in the vast majority of movies that I ever see. The only thing more girl power than this that I can imagine is seeing footage of L7 in their prime playing their greatest hits.

There’s no doubt that the image of femininity that’s presented here, and which is part of the women’s roller derby league that has some profile in the States, is sexualised, and that manifests here too. But it’s not depicted in a way which renders these ladies sexualised, passive victim / objects. They’re brawling babes, punching and elbowing their way to victory or honourable defeat, barely taking any time to listen to ‘the man’ trying to tell them how to win.

If you took the trouble to ask me, which distorted and insane version of womanhood do you think I’d prefer to see: the one exemplified by the dreary chick flicks where women are dribbling messes and fall over for no good reason, or the kinds of women who compare battlefield bruises and look like they’d be at home on the set of Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill?

This flick isn’t perfect, but it has its place. If they’d cut the awful romantic storyline, and that terribly try-hard scene where they’re making out underwater, in the most complicated, awkward and unsatisfying aquatic foreplay I’ve ever seen, I would have rated it higher.

You go, girls: go and beat on the brat, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh oh oh.

6 times Ellen Page being the poster child for the next generation of riot girls sits well with me out of 10

“We deserve better villains.” – don’t we all? - Whip It.