Monday, October 05, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Whip It

Whip It (2009) 6/10
Bliss (Ellen Page) is a beauty pageant teen from Nowheresville, Texas who finds herself, and romance, through roller derby. Directed by Drew Barrymore.

Whip It is a pleasant movie that works on a number of levels. It's fun, it has some laughs, it has an admirable cast. But Drew Barrymore, in her film directorion debut, can't really decide what movie she wants to make. Is it the story of the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby? Then give us more rough and more world. Is it a teen romance? Then make the backdrop less interesting than roller derby, because you're doing it a disservice.

I do like the movie, but not as much as I want to. There are so few that pass the Bechdel Movie Test, and so few that allow women to break out of the constraints that the film industry places on us, that when one like this comes along, I wnant it to be excellent, and Whip It is not that.

It's kind of a female awakening movie, about Bliss toughening up and finding herself, and I think it does a pretty good job of that, except that the romance, as charming as young Landon Pigg is, doesn't serve that purpose. It's a sweet romance, but we already knew Bliss was sweet, so we're not moving in the direction of true transformation.

Every transformation movie has a struggle with its star, either before or after. Generally before: Is Audrey Hepburn really all that bedraggled a flower girl? I think there are actresses who could have played a young beauty queen and done the roller derby convincingly. Maybe Ellen Page is that actress, but she's not asked to really pull it off here.

Let's start with "before." The look created for her mom (the extraordinary-as-always Marcia Gay Harden) suggests the filmmakers actually know what a pageant contestant looks like, but Ellen Page is not that girl. She is free of hairspray and lacquer, her custom gown doesn't emphasize her figure, her eye makeup is underplayed. She's a sweet, slight, pretty girl. And then there's "after," during which she becomes a...sweet, slight, pretty girl who's kind of fast and somewhat tougher than before.

Her edginess is all very "Hey, I saw her in Juno!" She wears the Doc Martens and the print skirts with rock t-shirts, and she disses her small town life. But beyond that? Not terribly edgy until the end, and it's not enough. (Besides which, how does her mother either not notice that Doc Martens do not equal beauty queen and maybe there's a disconnect with what her daughter really wants, OR not put her foot down and make her daughter pretty up all the time?)

Did I mention the romance was sweet? I loved the romance. But it didn't belong in this particular movie. It stole screen time from real character development for Bliss and for her roller derby compatriots, who were potentially very interesting.

As it was, it was a pleasant couple of hours spent with a movie that might have been so much more.

(I absolutely refuse to give this cross-post a hot roller derby name.)