Thursday, October 1, 2009

Review: "Whip It"

I know some roller derby chicks, and can testify to the girl-power jolt that fuels the resurgence of the cheesy 1970s sport. In its modern punk incarnation of ripped fishnet stockings, mascara applied with a trowel and tattooed gals who celebrate a really gnarly bruise, it's all about elbowing aside all of society's rigid hang-ups about what nice girls do -- and don't do.

That's what I was hoping for from "Whip It," the new roller derby flick starring Ellen Page from "Juno" and marking the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore (who also has a small role). There's some of that brash energy, and the action in the rink is enjoyably rough-and-tumble.

But something about the movie, which was written by Shauna Cross and based on her book "Derby Girl," left me wanting more.

Perhaps it's the fact that roller derby phenom is stitched onto the back of the overly familiar coming-of-age teen movie, with all the predictable tropes.

Page plays Bliss, who enters beauty pageants to satisfy her mother's (Marcia Gay Harden) Doris Day concept of womanhood, but secretly favors combat boots. Daniel Stern breathes a little life into the dad role, but it's the same-old portrayal of a decent but emotionally absent father figure.

When Bliss catches sight of some derby girls, she determines to travel from her sleepy town of Bodeen, Texas, to nearby Austin to catch the show. She's encouraged to try out for the team, and despite her tiny size she turns out to be fast and nimble on her skates.

One of the most fun things about roller derby is the comically violent or risqué skate names the women gives themselves and their teams. The Hurl Scouts (told you) includes Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Bliss herself is rechristened Babe Ruthless.

(Some real-life players in my backyard include Jane Ire, Trauma-lina and Smackie Onassis.)

The heavies are the Holy Rollers, led by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, in full sneer mode). The Hurl Scouts are the league doormats, but when the girls add Ruthless to the roster and start listening to their hapless coach, they move up the ladder.

About two-thirds of the way through, the movie enters a dark and angsty phase that feels obligatory -- it subtracts, rather than adds anything to the film.

Bliss/Ruthless has hooked up with a hipster guitar player (Landon Pigg) who disappears on tour, her parents find out the high-schooler has been lying about all the late nights, and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, one to watch) becomes P.O.'d at her for no good reason.

It's all meant to set up the triumphant showdown on the rink, with mom and dad learning to bask in their daughter's crazy new obsession.

I feel like I've spent this whole review dumping on "Whip It," when actually I quite liked it. It's fun, it celebrates rebellion -- at least the kind unlikely to result in anything worse than a sprained ankle or a busted nose -- and it's all about girls realizing their own power.

Floor burns beat a tiara any day.

3 stars

1 comment:

  1. Under normal circumstances I would have thought that Ellen Page has a really annoying way about her, but she actually did a great job in this movie; all around Whip It rocked.