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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Derby distaff rules!

Motor City locales help lift Whip It to a wind-up yarn of female empowerment and redemption

Posted By on Wed, Oct 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Drew Barrymore's best decision (other than shooting in metro Detroit, of course) as director of this breezy if predictable ode to femme power was to fill her cast with likable, feisty actresses who are equally adept at tossing off jokes and throwing punches. Any time you get Ellen Page to star in your flick, you're on solid ground. Of course, we've seen Page do the mildly angsty teenager role to death, but it's that combination of soulful hurt and I-don't-give-a-shit irreverence that pulls you in.

The plot is simultaneously up-to-the-minute hip and weirdly anachronistic. Teenager Bliss Cavendar (Page) is pushed hard by her loving but inflexible mom (Marcia Gay Harden) to be a beauty queen. Bliss wants something more than her podunk Texas town can offer, so she rebels by joining an underdog roller derby team in nearby Austin. A surrogate mom is found, romance blossoms, a rival emerges, and a friendship is tested. It all ends in hugs. 

Screenwriter Shauna Cross transports musty Hollywood tropes and relationships from the 1950s into the hipster derby arena with little success. Part of the problem is that she wants her story to be all things to all people. It's a sports movie and a tale of female bonding but also a coming-of-age story. It's occasionally funny but not quite a comedy, and sentimental but not quite a drama. There's a sort of romance and a core friendship that intrigues, but neither gets the minutes it needs. Even A-list scripters would have trouble keeping all those balls in the air, and this is only Cross' second credit. To say she's got to learn to focus is an understatement.

Barrymore, for her part, delivers some great chick-flick camaraderie, keeps the sweet moments from getting too sticky but struggles to pull everything together. There's box-checking quality to her direction that's clearly diligent but lacks spark or verisimilitude. Her derby scenes miss true energy and drive, the team that Bliss joins lacks a cohesive identity, and even a newbie should've known better than to cast Jimmy Fallon in a completely throwaway role. All those years of being on the set and preparing for her directorial debut has robbed Barrymore of the spontaneity and personality she so often shows as an actress.

But let's get back to where the 31-year-old producer-actor-director is in her element: picking and working with other actors. For a small-scale production, Whip It boasts an engaging mix of newcomers and veterans. Marcia Gay Harden crafts a flesh-and-blood mom from a thanklessly underwritten part; Daniel Stern delivers the least Semitic good-'ol-boy dad I've ever seen; Kristen Wiig is surprisingly earthy and clever (instead of shticky and broad), while Amreeka's Alia Shawkat makes a strong impression as Bliss's BFF. The cast's warm and family-like vibe is both affectionate and infectious, overcoming much of the film's awkwardness.

While it never achieves the smarts or poignancy of Bend It Like Beckham, for a first-time effort Whip It could've been a heckuva lot worse. But where its failure is unforgivable is in the lame monikers the film's main derby girls are handed. Smashley Simpson? Maggie Mayhem? Babe Ruthless? With so many of Detroit's best rollergirls providing team backup, the least the movie could've done was rise to level of their awesome names. Unfortunately, there's nary an Effin Money, Honey Suckit or Lady Macdeath among them.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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