The further away Ellen Page gets from Juno, the more she proves that she’s perhaps Hollywood’s best young actress by consistently giving great performances. Whip It, A-list star Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, is another feather in the cap of a resume that already has acclaimed roles in the aforementioned Juno and Hard Candy on it.
Bliss (Page) is a high school senior trying to figure out who she is. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) wants her and her younger sister to be beauty queens like she was, much to Bliss’s chagrin. A waitress in a restaurant in Bodeen, Texas, Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development fame) are outsiders in a small town world that has few insiders. When a chance encounter with some roller-derby skaters at a head shop in Austin, TX, gives her a destination and guidance it puts her on a path towards an unlikely place in the world: the roller derby ring. As a Jammer for the “Hurl Scouts,” Bliss gets rechristened as Babe Ruthless and begins a journey of self discovery that brings out a strong confident woman in place of the wallflower she once was.
And for a directorial debut, Barrymore couldn’t have picked a better project or a better cast. Based on the book Derby Girl, Barrymore for years has been a top flight producer but seemingly has toyed with directing (like many actors do). But she has waited for the right opportunity and this is it, as Whip It! is a film that has so much good going for it that it would take a spectacularly inept person to screw it up. Instead, Barrymore has crafted a character drama that takes the best of the “chick flick” and merges it with the sports underdog storyline with terrific results.
Her success begins with the film’s script, which is tight and charming, but the main reason behind the film’s quality is its cast. Loaded with a number of “name” actresses in smaller parts (Juliette Lewis, Barrymore, Kristin Wiig, Eve), the beauty in the film is the amount of great actors in supporting roles. Jimmy Fallon has just enough time on screen as the roller derby announcer that he doesn’t outlast his welcome, Zoe Bell of Death Proof fame gets another quirky part and Andrew Wilson (brother of Luke and Owen Wilson) has a terrific small part as the team’s coach. There’s a sense that this film was cast for its chemistry, and not for its total star status, as the small things in the film make for interesting viewing.
The way the “Hurl Scouts” play together, from beginning to end, gives clues as to why Barrymore put together this cast. They have a chemistry together that can’t be fake with good stunt doubles in terms of how they move, especially during moments when it is the actresses skating. The cast also works well together off the rink as well, which doesn’t hurt, and Barrymore is confident enough as a first time director to let her cast carry the film. This is a film with a modicum of plot and story, a character-based drama set in rural Texas, and Barrymore shows deft touch in letting it play out organically.
For Page this is another in what seemingly is an increasing line of roles where she plays a teenager coming of age, but she does it so well that it’s not a negative. Juno MacGuff and Bliss Cavender probably would be friends in real life but they aren’t the same person; credit Page for taking two similar written parts and making two different but likable characters out of it. It may not be as strong a part as her Oscar nominated turn but Page is fantastic in the role.
If one didn’t know any better, one would think that Whip It! was crafted by a veteran director with a strong grasp of character based dramas. It’s a credit to Barrymore that her first time behind the camera has produced a gem of a film.
Presented in a Dolby Digital format in a widescreen format, the film has a lot of color and a quirky soundtrack that the Blu-Ray disc brings it out wonderfully.
Writer’s Draft is a brief discussion of the film by Shauna Cross, who stumbled upon the sport looking for a tennis partner.
Deleted Scenesare included and were deleted for a reason. The alternate opening is an interesting, if different way to open the film.
A Commercial for the soundtrack to Whip It is included.
A Digital Copy of the film is included.
Quite the auspicious debut for the former child star of E.T, Whip It may not have set the box office on fire but it was a terrific film.
20th Century Fox presents Whip It. Directed by Drew Barrymore. Starring Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Andrew Wilson, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat. Written by Shauna Cross off her novel “Derby Girl”. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: January 26, 2010. Available at Amazon.com