Thursday, October 8, 2009

Whip It

Roller Derby is a fairly brutal contact sport wherein the players of two teams race on roller skates around a small banked track and attempt to prevent their opponents from passing. Frequent bruises, bloodied noses and broken ribs result. To “whip it” is for one skater to take the hand of another and fling them forwards for a burst of speed. In its current incarnation, it is played exclusively by girls; the uniform of choice tends to ra-ra skirts and fishnets, dyed hair, a generous covering of tattoos and punning metal-inspired noms de jeu. The main team in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It, the Hurl Scouts, revel in being the worst in the league, bad attitude being more important than success as they have it; it’s a classic slacker/alt. setting but despite a soundtrack of requisite hipness, an ironic 80s rock shirt as plot point and the central presence of indie elf Ellen Page, this is less a cynical indie meander through Gen-Y self-doubt than a fundamentally traditional sports movie about fulfillment of self and a tight-knit group, complete with family reconciliation subplot (cue training montage; cue parents accepting daughter’s right to live her own life).

Given the comfortable camaraderie of the cast and the authentic evocation of milieu, this is all to the good; the “alternative” elements are a natural background rather than a badge of honour (as Page replies when quizzed about her new pastime “alternative to what?”). Her team-mates include SNL’s Kristen Wiig (motherly rather than weird, which is a shame but still fine), Barrymore herself (the sweet-looking girl who likes to beat up on people), rapper Eve and stunt-woman Zoe Bell (neither given much to do) and the real-life Iron Maiven and Krissy Krash from the LA Derby Dolls (given even less; their characters are deaf). The long-suffering coach is perhaps the most deadpan of the Wilson brothers, Andrew; Page’s love interest is fast-rising indie pop guy Landon Pigg, her best friend Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, and pop-up appearances come from Jimmy Fallon and Har Mar Superstar. But even the casting doesn’t feel too painfully hip – they clearly had a great deal of fun making the movie (not least during an extensive food fight – and that good humour consistently makes it to the screen rather than remaining a cast’s in-joke.

And that’s really the best thing the film has going for it. Page’s Bliss (soon to become Babe Ruthless) lives outside Austin, the repository for all that’s cool, all that’s impossible in her nowheresville home town. She works in a BBQ diner (with a “quirky” giant fibre-glass pig on its roof on which of course in a period of melancholic reflection she goes and sits) and her mother, an ex-pageant queen, trots her around the circuit while her father looks only for excuses surreptitiously to watch football. Page is far less self-possessed than in Juno and does a fine job of capturing the not-quite-formed personality of a well-behaved seventeen year old, even if it’s done mostly with a face of slightly quizzical blankness. Shawkat’s Pash, her fellow waitress, is effectively effusive but the weight of the drama falls to parents Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern, each with a neatly judged characterisation and their own quietly subdued sadness.

In fact, Harden’s sensitive (but largely unsentimental playing) robs the film of a certain amount of conflict. She’s no dragon nor pathetically desperate to live through her child, and Bliss is no rebellious teen, their mutual love and respect is consistently apparent. There’s a certain irony in the fact that Roller Derby scene is kissing cousins with the fifties throwback trend, as the most explicitly stated conflict is that of the mother’s poised ideas of femininity with her daughter’s emerging individuality; when the clash of desires/ideals inevitably comes it is a harsh moment, but fleeting and as smoothly ushered to reconciliation as Bliss’s falling out with Pash. Likewise, despite early scenes of ineptitude on skates, Bliss the league's poster child with no apparent trouble and the Act four age obstacle to her competing in the final is never convincingly problematic.

But in the end none of this matters too much because it is simply an entertaining movie. There’s plenty of funny lines and playing to offset the occasions when the rhythms of dialogue and cutting veer a bit off-kilter; a spectacular double-whip in the finale is down-played almost to the point of elision. Indeed, the race scenes are never quite as exciting as they should be, but the fact that the cast performed their own skating allows for a generous immediacy. That the film was shot largely in Michigan is rendered more or less invisible by judicious inserts of Austin locales (the best being Daniel Johnston's giant alien). The roller derby world is perfectly conjured, due in part to the film's source in a novel by a former skater and if the love story drags on, Page plays first love with nicely-judged understatement and the indie rock boyfriend who seems too good to be true (beanpole frame, Kinks haircut and sensitive to boot) serves eventually to reinforce the subtext that women can do perfectly well without relying on men (even though slouchy dad gets to stand up straight and carry the film to its natural resolution). Indeed the feminist agenda is implied rather than explored – it’s certainly a film about women, but primarily as people rather than a gender, in the same way that the roller girls present a provocative appearance for their own enjoyment rather than sexual display.

And it’s good-hearted – despite the hipster trappings, the tone is set by Page’s sweetly awed face when three roller girls skate into a vintage boutique at the start, the coolest thing she’s ever seen, by the uncomplicated, familial friendliness, cartoon villain Juliet Lewis aside, of all those she meets on the skating scene, and by the ease with which the Hurl Scouts decide actually trying is not such a bad thing. This tendency towards the cuddly gives Bliss a terrifically easy ride morally speaking, her misdeeds easily forgiven, her one hard decision made for her by the age problem and then overturned through the indulgence of her parents; but for better or worse, like the justification for letting her compete in the tournament final, eschewing thought of more serious matters such as Financial Responsibility and The Future, the film aspires to and pleasantly achieves no more than enjoyment for its own sake in the here and now, celebration of family and friends, and letting life’s problems be worried about on another day.

d Drew Barrymore p Barry Mendel sc Shauna Cross ph Robert D. Yeoman ed Dylan Tichenor pd Kevin Kavanaugh m The Section Quartet cast Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Stern, Kristen Wiig, Landon Pigg, Andrew Wilson, Juliet Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Carlo Alban, Zoe Bell, Eve, Jimmy Fallon, Har Mar Superstar
(2009, USA, 111m)
posted by tom newth at

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