Move aside boys — it's time for the girls to get in on the action, on both sides of the camera.
It's no big secret that American cinema is still largely a man's world, from top to bottom and everywhere in between. Every once and a while, we get something like Frozen River — a film about what it means to be a woman, written and directed by Courtney Hunt (a woman) — and of course, small awards buzz aside, the film gets relegated to the fringe.
The point here is not that we should expect women to be making films solely about women — Kathryn Bigelow has exhibited more insight into the male psyche than most gents. But when sexuality and promiscuity are too often treated as synonymous with femininity, someone has to step in, and it might as well be someone who knows a thing or two about being a woman.
And, for that matter, filmmaking. Whether you believed she had it in her or not, Drew Barrymore is exactly that filmmaker.
Whip It! Skates Around The Sports Genre Conventions Admirably
Whip It! — Barrymore's directorial debut — isn't a sensationally great film, and from beginning to end, it's a downright predictable one. Every move is telegraphed by a thousand coming-of-age and sports movies before it. However, it has the wonderful sweat and stench of truth, as in something that came from experience rather than blind inference.
Scripted by Shauna Cross from her novel of the same name, Whip It! is unapologetic in its reliance on genre formula and convention, which is at least one reason why it gets away with playing connect the dots with the plot lines. Predestination aside, there's a lot of personality coming through from both sides of the camera.
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) longs (as every small-town, high-school protagonist does) to escape. The prison in question is Bodeen, Texas, or more figuratively, her nutty mother's (Marcia Gay Harden) insistence on including her in the local pageantry circuit. Down the highway, the liberal offerings of Austin tempt her toward, of all things, roller derbies.
Ellen Page Leads Off Phenomenally Assembled Cast in Whip It!
Page, as she has proven before, is as talented as any young actress around, and it's a good thing she brought her A-game. Aside from the demanding physicality for the role, Page has competition coming at her from all angles. Had she given any less, there would have been plenty of supporting actresses (and a few actors) ready to run away with the movie.
Way at the front of the pack is Alia Shawkat as Cavendar's witty counterpart, Pash. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern make for a great one-two as Bliss's parents, and even Kristen Wiig refuses to be outmatched as one of Bliss's teammates.
The Strongest Talent In The Rink, Director Drew Barrymore
If anyone carries the film, though, it's Barrymore from behind the camera. Along with Wes Anderson's longtime cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, Barrymore crafts a tight and visually deft film, only missing a beat here and there. The small foul ups — some over-reliance on the soundtrack, a bit of indulgence in an underwater kissing scene — are largely eclipsed by Barrymore's prowess in the rink (she appears as one of the roller girls, er, women, as well).
The roller derby sequences are terrific and convincingly brutal at times. Barrymore keeps the camera right up in the action, never shying away from an elbow to the jaw or a bloodied nose. When Whip It! plays on the image of a woman as dainty pageant model versus the independent, bone crunching roller athlete, there's never a question where Barrymore, the director, pledges her allegiance.
VERDICT: Playing within all the genre boundaries can be a lot of fun too, and Barrymore does just that on her first outing as a director.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars