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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > Whip It

MOVIE REVIEWS

WHIP IT (2009)

Starring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Daniel Stern, Landon Pigg, Alia Shawkat, Andrew Wilson, Jimmy Fallon, Zoë Bell, Ari Graynor and Eve.

Screenplay by Shauna Cross.

Directed by Drew Barrymore.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight.  111 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

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Whip It 

You may be surprised to consider that one of the better girl-power feel-good movies of the year is about the down and dirty world of roller derby.

Hell, you may be surprised (I kind of was) anyone still plays roller derby, a confusing and violent sport which had its heyday in the 60s and 70s but had long ago seemed to have pretty much disappeared.

However, like the sport that inspired it, Whip It can sometimes be cheesy, sometimes be outright stupid (they actually have a food fight!), but sometimes be engrossing and surprisingly good fun.

True, the movie gets its female empowerment doctrine less from Betty Friedan than it does the Spice Girls, yet Whip It is actually a very effective coming-of-age story.

Actress Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is not overly flashy or thought provoking, however it is the kind of just-slightly-corny-but-undeniably-amusing tale that could bring in surprisingly large (though undoubtedly predominantly female) crowds if things break right. 

Whip It is counter-programming which actually works for the most part.  If you don't feel like following your husband or boyfriend to see Zombieland or Surrogates this weekend, here is an oasis for women.  (This would be a little better strategy if Whip It if it hadn't opened in theaters within a week of Fame and Coco Avant Chanel.)  There is also a built-in lure to get the boyfriend to come along - women in roller skates and schoolgirl outfits getting into high-speed catfights.

These are of course an oversimplification of Whip It's charms, but if it gets the fannies in the seats....

The pleasant surprise is that while in many ways Whip It follows all of the tired sports movie clichés, this is a savvier and more well-thought out formula film than most which come down the pike.

In fact, to a certain extent, the game of roller derby is sort of secondary to the story - which is kind of unanticipated considering that it is written by roller derby vet Shauna Cross, based on her own semi-autobiographical novel.

Whip It never bothers to explain the sport or any of the rules to the point where the audience - if they don't already understand roller derby scoring (and I don't) - really won't have much idea at any given time who is scoring or how.  The only way I ever knew the heroine's team was winning was that the teammates were celebrating.  It's sort of like making a baseball movie and most of the audience doesn't know what a home run is - and not bothering to explain it. 

You see, in the world of Whip It, roller derby is not so much a game as it is a symbolic escape.

Escape from small town Texas.  Escape from the dreams of your parents.  Escape from settling for less than you want.

Ellen Page (Juno) does a fine job as the heroine, Bliss.  A typical high school student who works at the local greasy spoon, talks about boys with her best friend (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) and dreams of moving from her little podunk town.

Her mom Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) is one of those Texas stage moms whose whole life revolves around beauty pageants and cotillions - a world in which she has submerged Bliss into.  Bliss rebels safely (she dies her hair blue right before the big cotillion!) but she mostly humors her mother.

Harden is wonderful if her character is not.  We've seen the overbearing mom trying to live vicariously through the daughter way too often.  Other than fine acting, Harden has little she can add to it.  And, completely off the wall, but I didn't believe that she worked as a postal deliverer for even a second.  That said, I really liked Brooke's relationship with Bliss' daddy (Daniel Stern) - a good-natured guy who loves his family, but would like the opportunity to just sit around and enjoy sports and beer sometimes.  Had Harden's character been able to show more of the shading that she does with Stern, hers would be a much better character.

Bliss stumbles upon her true passion during a day trip to the nearest big city - Austin - when she sees a flier for tryouts for a local derby league.  On a whim she tries out.  Despite the fact that she is small and not all that tough, it turns out she is damned fast and she gets a job with the local losers team, not-so-colorfully called the "Hurl Scouts" where the players have goofy aliases like Bloody Holly, Margie Mayhem, Rosa Sparks and Smashley Simpson.  (Shouldn't that be Smashlee?) 

If you have seen any sports movies you have an idea where this is all going.  Due to the new speedster, the loser team starts winning.  Bliss becomes the league star and even gets a local rock-star boyfriend (played by real singer Landon Pigg).  However, her new-found stardom and double life starts wearing on her relationships with her best friend and her family.

As I said before, there is nothing groundbreaking here.  However, Whip It wears its clichés well.  It's not a great movie, but it's a lot better than it has any reason to be.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 30, 2009.

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Copyright ©2009   PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 30, 2009.