Sunday, October 4, 2009
REVIEW: Whip It...
I hate iPod playlists, disguises as pieces of cinema.
Many times, with a new film fro a mid-major like Fox Searchligt (currently the Boise State of film studios), you get some attempt at a hip soundtrack, Juno and Garden State being two bright examples. Unlike soundtracks from directors like Quentin Tarantino, which give you an addition to the filmic experience, you get iPod playlists looking for stories.
However, Whip It is completely different.
Whip It follows Bliss Cavendar (played by the stunning Ellen Page) who has grown unhappy with the apparent small-town Texas life of Friday night football and beauty pageant competition, the football championed by her father Earl (Daniel Stern) and the pageants by her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). She commiserates with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) at their waitressing jobs. Pash has a plan to get out: she is applying to Ivy League schools. Bliss just wants to get out and needs a plan and a calling. She finds it during a shopping trip to Austin, Texas where she picks up a flyer for a Roller Derby event, schemes to attend, gets invited to try out and becomes Babe Ruthless, her alter-ego roller derby character. She makes the team, lies about her age, works hard to succeed, experiences her first love with the young lead singer of an Indie rock band, gets disappointed in love, bonds with her new family of roller derby girls, fights with her mother to escape the beauty pageant and live her new dream as roller derby star.
First off, to cover the horrifically written opening, this soundtrack is beyond amazing, and the film as a whole features 75 music cues, making this an almost new wave musical. With music ranging from The Ramones (personal favorite Sheena Is a Punk Rocker) to Peaches (Boys Wanna Be Her) this film features amazing music, that, instead of making itself obnoxious and overtly noticeable, it attempts to just add to the film. Sure, it does feel a bit to on the nose, and a bit hip for the sake of being hip (Bliss' love interest is an indie rock singer for example) but the film has so much heart, that it works.
That's the most impressive part of this film. Whip It is not only a girl power masturbation session, but it also oozes more heart that a coked out whore in a horror movie. The relationship between Bliss and her mother is so dead on, and the father's relationship with the two women in his life is also right on the money. The father is envious of his neighbors with the football star children, but what he is more envious of isn't the cliche idea of a star child, but he just wishes that his step daughter had some sort of calling, which is truly refreshing. The film as a whole also has this similar realistic vibe, in all the relationships within the constraints of the celluloid.
On a cinematic level, the performances here are, for the most part, top notch.
Ellen Page is in top form here as Bliss, which in turn, is basically the high school version of Ellen Page. Yeah, she is riffing on the same character that has made her a household name (Juno minus the kid and Michael Cera, and add Texas, roller skates, and an indie rocker beau), but there is a reason, as no one plays the wounded indie girl like Ellen Page. It's like people who yell at Sylvester Stallone for playing a steroided up man-guerrilla in every film. He's just that damn good at it, and Page is too, just yeah, not at being a steroid addict. She's a Goldfrapp addict (Hard Candy anyone?)
The supporting cast here is also really good, minus one minor character. Drew Barrymore steals every scene she is in (more on her in a minute), and the biggest shocker is that Jimmy Fallon is great here. He's got a small role as an announcer, but he is funny and plays up the part to great effect. Marcia Gay Harden is the star of the supporting cast as the mother, who is the female version of a football dad, or in lamens terms, a pageant mom. Her and Bliss' relationship feels so real, that when the viewer gets to the last emotional turns, one can't help but watch as the theatre gets a little bit dusty. Sure, it's a film chock full of famous sports cliches, but you know what, it works 100%. Hell, this cast is so good, as is the screenplay, that it gives Kristen Wiig a role where she isn't just comedic relief, and makes it work.
The only lacking spot in the film is Julliete Lewis as Iron Maven, a rival roller derby star. She is such a cliche sports villain, and gives a really poor performance to boot, that she came off neither menacing, nor well as a whole. And in a film filled to the brim with stellar performances, that it sticks out like a bruised, battered, and just plain f****** broken thumb.
However, nothing may be more surprising than the direction from first time director Drew Barrymore. Yeah, the little girl from E.T. is behind the camera for this one, and it looks like one hell of a kick off for a bright directing future. The cinematography is so great here, as is the framing of each scene, that while keeping the viewer disconnected, it really gives you a warm feeling. It's not documentary style or anything like that, but it also doesn't keep you emotionally distant. The film brings you in, without falling to normal "indie" film tropes. Also, the roller derby scenes are rather brutal and fast, which really gives the film an interesting style. The film as a whole is quite realistic, and the direction simply adds to that
That said, the film does have a few flaws.
The primary problem that I and many of my contemporaries are finding with this piece is the very slow and poorly paced opening. Yes, I understand that I am in need of being told not only how roller derby works, but what is going on in the primary character's life, but the opening seemed completely too slow and from a complete separate film as a whole. Also, the lack of a good solid villain makes the most compelling conflict the one between Bliss and her mother, which doesn't hit any emotional head or pull any sort of weight until late in the third act. Also in that, the resolution comes so fast, that the beginning and end seem so rushed (except for one final scene of the mother reading a note), that it leaves a weird taste in the viewers mouth.
All in all, Whip It works for the most part, but a slow beginning and a rushed conclusion make for a weird film as a whole. A worth while excursion into the world of girl power sports (which women are weirdly enough avoiding, making this film only number 5 at this weeks box office), chock full of fantastic performances, direction, and one hell of a soundtrack, this is one of the better films you are likely to see currently at the box office.
WHIP IT - 8.5/10
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