Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 5, 2010

Ready to Rent

Whip It

by Joe Ramirez

Fox Home Video DVD & Blu-Ray

1 hour, 51 minutes

Director: Drew Barrymore

The most surprising thing, for me, about director Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" is its breezy, unconfrontational attitude given its pretty aggressive subject, mainly, girl's roller derby and living in Texas. Although this sounds pretty silly, I dare you to go onto our Bay Area's own "Bay City Bombers" (who are based in San Francisco) website and watch these girls pummel each other and not tell me that that kitsch can sometimes comes at an ugly price. Barrymore and her screenwriter Shauna Cross (whose own experiences make up the movie's drama) keep the story to an almost expected minimum -- out of place girl from a conservative background comes into her own playing a not-so-traditionalist sport -- but it's expected. This is modern feminist fantasy for adolescent girls who need some chutzpah in their pop-culture after the weird, fatalism that the "Twilight" series has to offer.

What can constitute today's adolescent girl's fantasies? How much has really changed within the last 20 or 30 years in terms of role models? It may seem out of place in a movie recommendation, but this touched a nerve in me while watching "Whip It." I suppose I can only add my two cents basing this in the context of the movies themselves while risking sounding like a pretentious tool. The answer, however, lies in actress Ellen Page's roles. It's no accident that she is the star of "Whip It" when she also played the flipside in 2007's "Juno," another story of a modern adolescent girl who is trying to reign in her life. I feel that there is a cultural polarization right now when it comes to role models -- with a deluge of princesses and cheerleaders on one side and then, every once in a while, girls like Juno on the other who don't necessarily walk away into the sunset or, discovers that it's never a straight line.

"Whip It's" Bliss Cavendar (Page) finds that straight line within the circle of the roller rink. She is a 17 year old whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden, in iron butterfly mom mode) gently clobbers her with beauty pageants and society parties for Bliss' own good. Like all oppressed girls, however, Bliss rebels in her own way by dying her hair and wearing punky clothes until, one night, she and her pal Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak out to Austin and discover the joys of roller derby. Bliss is so enamored that she lies about her age and joins up, under the radar of her parents and the team officials. When she becomes a circuit star, however, she discovers that fame, family, secrets and emo-rock guys are never the best mix.

I have to say that Barrymore as a director is very good. This is a movie that has an intimate feel, captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman in clean, warm and exciting terms, that make you feel the camaraderie without making you choke on it. It's three performances, however, that give "Whip It" the weight that it needs: Harden adds a hidden pathos to the archetypal role of the overbearing mom; Andrew Wilson (the other Wilson brother after Luke and Owen) is perfect as the team's spacey, ever frustrated, airbrushed-van toting coach; however, it's Juliette Lewis that steals the movie with a piece of dialog that she snarls, summing up the frustrations of her life. Barrymore knows that these women are small time, and that outlets for self-esteem can come in the strangest of places.

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