There were several thoughts that ran through my head as I watched Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. The first was how impressive Ellen Page is. Yes, like many, I enjoyed Juno, but one film cannot make someone’s career (see Kate Hudson). But such a fate is not likely in store for Paige. She is a talented actress who brings exactly what is needed to each role she has been in. The second thought was how successful Barrymore ultimately was. She took an unknown sport and made it exciting to the ill informed. I still know nothing about roller derby, but I was still able to feel the passion that each of the characters felt.
The third thought went something like this: cliche, cliche, cliche, oh dear god why are you doing this? The entire third act of the work is nothing but a rehash of the items that we have come to expect in every single sports film and coming of age film of the past fifty years. Why on earth do this? Why take such an interesting premise and then turn it into a walking cliche factory.
The film follows Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page) a 17 year old girl living in a small Texas town. Her mother seems to take the Ramsey method of life; your success is measured by how many crowns you have won at a beauty pageant. Bliss hates such spectacles and always finds a way to ruin them, such as, dyeing her hair blue before she gives a speech. One night, she sneaks away with her friends to go see an all female roller derby. She finds she enjoys the spectacle, in which women must push each other down and skate as quickly as possible in order to score (there are rules, but I cannot recall them and the movie does not dwell on them). She lies about her age to join the worst possible team, the Hurl Scouts (in which Drew Barrymore herself is a team member), where she becomes the toast of the sport and draws jealousy from the rival captain Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis-for whom Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers seem like such a long time ago).
Now, going by that, you would expect it to be the typical sports film. Well it doesn’t start off that way. Actually it starts off with a wonderful emancipation theme that would have been more at home with John Hughes or Kevin Smith. Ellen Page plays the role as she should-a confused teenager who is still striving for more in the world, but is not pretentious. She underplays her moods when the time calls for it and never becomes a teenager who vocalizes their views as though they are a world weary traveler. If Ellen Page is willing to bring this effort into roles such as this one-well, she’ll be around for a long time.
Perhaps Barrymore will as well. She takes an item no one ever had an interest in and makes it interesting. She even allows the characters to progress in their interest: one male character only admits he would like to view the competition to see women wearing fishnets. Yet each character comes around to the film’s way of thinking: they are thoroughly impressed by the dedication they see. So are we: most of the athletes are people who have no lives and are only involved because this is the one item they are good at in life. It evokes The Wrestler for that reason but, sadly, comes nowhere close to that masterpiece; mostly because it stumbles at the third act in the worst way imaginable.
I just hope she does better films than this. The third act is a complete cop-out. A trivia question: what do a scene involving an non understanding parent showing up for the big game, a best friend who feels betrayed only to forgive the protagonist later, the potential for the protagonist to not participate in the big game (a phrase that needs to be trademarked-any takers?) and a scene in which a potential boyfriend is suspected of cheating only to reveal it was a wacky misunderstanding have in common? There are two answers-both are some of the most standard cop outs a sports film can use. Each of those also makes a part of the third act to Whip It.
Seriously, anyone who has seen any sports movie will recognize this. And the opening of the film was so compelling and set up the characters so wonderfully. Why do this? Maybe Drew Barrymore was scared: this was her debut after all. Better to play it safe than to try and experiment too much. In today’s instant gratification culture no one cares for directors who experiment.
In that regard, Barrymore’s debut is still competent. The first two acts are wonderful. It took an outsider sport and made it all inclusive, something few are able to do successfully. But still, with such an intriguing premise, why play it safe? You have us hooked, now surprise us.