Sigh & Yawn: Whip It does no justice to roller derby

Making Hollywood films is so easy.  No seriously, it must be real simple but the perceived outcomes vary.  Take a fantastic cast (an Oscar winner, two others with nominations) and put them into a zany underbelly – boom, a license to print money and swallow praise.  Not so much in the case of Whip It because even given its pedigree, its Achilles’ heel is that it doesn’t really know what kind of movie it wants to be.

Whip It, the debut directorial work of Drew Barrymore, has gained some new viewers in the last week as the former child star’s newest film, rom-com Going The Distance, hit the theaters and she hit the press circuit.  In recent weeks, reporters have been asking what her follow up project would be, as if this was like asking Martin Scorsese how he would answer The Departed with Shutter Island.  I won’t be waiting in anticipation for her next work because her first film plays out as if the plot was ripped from the pages of Barrymore’s teenage diary.  Watching a girl rebel in modern cinema is nothing new and, honestly, it has been done well – Ellen Page, star of Whip It, did it expertly within her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno – but Barrymore is sold on the fact that her female protagonist is righteous.  Sure, but compared to other characters, she is also fantastically boring.

The story wants to be about a young girl’s rise to Austin metropolitan underground roller derby fame as “Babe Ruthless” (Page), but it is, truthfully, a classic trojan horse: it’s the story of a girl with mommy issues. Page’s mother (the normally superb Marcia Gay Harden) wants her to be the pageant queen, which is the film’s first leap of faith. Ellen Page has as much charisma and beauty to wear a tiara as I do – and don’t say “that’s the point” because if it is, that’s just deus ex machina in the cruelest way.  Anyway, Page decides that’s not a quirky enough fate so she decides to try out for a local roller derby squad, the Hurl Scouts.  This is where the film could have been redeemed – focusing on the sport and an interesting set of supporting players would have buoyed the film until its conclusion.  It could have been a classier and less slapstick version of Baseketball, but instead, the sport is simply there for set pieces while barely holding together scenes of familial conflict and a lackluster romance subplot.

I can sum up my feelings towards Page’s character in two words: who cares.  Unfortunately, conflicts of abuse and neglect are truly the only ones that fictionally work within a good movie.  The mother-daughter rivalry plot of Whip It boils down to a girl screaming in histrionics that she wants to skate instead of sashaying down a stage.  Just say it, and you’ll have a rocky relationship with your mother for a couple of months.  Oh man, call Herman Mankiewicz, we got a classic on our hands!  Ellen Page is a versatile actress, but she’s given such an unforgiving and sleepy role by her equally unforgiving and sleepy director.  Page fills the running time with a dead-eyed teenage angst that would make the most Seattle-y grunge band weep.  And her romantic relationship with brooding musician Oliver (Landon Pigg) is thinly constructed, as if Barrymore hit “alternative guitarist” on a dart board when filling out the character list.

Page's character = who cares?

Page’s character = who cares?

The most frustrating element of the film is what could’ve been the most interesting aspect – roller derby.  While coverage of the sport is limited, I’ve lived in a city with an active roller derby following, and I know the joys of the game.  Just like The Monster Squad is amazing despite its childish flaws, roller derby is an excellent watch even though the players are not necessarily “type A” athletes.  But that’s the beauty of the derby – anyone with enough tenacity and spirit can show up, kick ass, and entertain a crowd.  This side of the game is represented in such a schizophrenic fashion in Barrymore’s film.  The director occasionally gets the message across, as she does with the presence of mother and team leader Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig, in a less-than-memorable performance), but other times, she seems content in just letting people play stereotypes.  The supporting teammates are depicted as they probably were in the initial script treatment: token black girl (Eve), foreign badass (Zoe Bell), and even Barrymore herself plays the brain-dead tough chick.

Unsurprisingly, the only element of the film that holds up is Babe Ruthless’ civilian best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat).  Most will recognize Shawkat as Maeby from defunct show Arrested Development.  Sometimes you forget that Page is suppose to be a young girl as she’s playing against thirty-something women in most scenes, and Shawkat’s Pash is the only reminder of that.  The setups and dialogue between Shawkat and Page are the most realistic in the entire film, mainly because Pash is so damn likable and sane.

Not all Barrymore's fault

Not all Barrymore’s fault

This isn’t all Drew Barrymore’s fault – the source material is less-than-inspired and most of the actresses that fill the frame are phoning in mediocre performances.  But Barrymore should have reached out and found a capable editor and provided her own spin to the plot.  Hell, Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining because the director changed too much.  There isn’t enough of a voice in Whip It, and there wasn’t a steady hand guiding it beyond just getting a lot of film in the can (does the film really need to be as long as it was?).  If this is what Drew Barrymore intended to produce, then she should just quit while she’s still getting acting gigs.  The film and its director seem to think that roller derby is a means to an end for all involved, but really, the sport is just a collection of misfits beating the crap out of each other.

Don’t overanalyze everything, Hollywood.

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