This movie has been on my radar for a few months now, and I was surprised to see the horrific Box-Office performance it had its opening week. I’m not sure what the factor was. Here, you have a very positively reviewed film with an indie film darling, and a completely fresh movie.
I’m usually not one for movies with all-female or strong female casts, and that’s not because I’m sexist. It’s because, as a viewer, I have a tough time sympathizing (usually) with female characters. Probably because after 24 years on this earth, I still have no idea how they think. It makes it tough to have a visceral reaction in a lot of films due to that lag of knowledge of my opposite sex.
But I’ll tell you, there is something about Ellen Page’s performances that I just get. She’s actually quite profound and brilliant, and when she’s on screen I can’t even think of looking away. She’s powerful and sympathetic at the same time, and I hang on literally every word that comes out of her mouth.
Here, as Bliss Cavander (AKA Babe Ruthless), she’s a teen stuck in a nowhere town with a lame job and her mother pushes her to compete in pageants. She’s more of the indie rock chick, T-shirt and jeans, and you can feel the plight of Bliss as she struggles to do what she wants to do without disappointing anyone. Page’s performance is quite strong, well-balanced, and she has, in very short order, become my absolute favorite actress.
The rest of the cast reads like a Who’s Who. Academy Award Winner Marcia Gay Harden plays Bliss’ overbearing, but still fairly kind-hearted mother. Harden is up to the task, and she walks a very thin line between being unlikeable and quite likeable. She’s a civil servant, who seems to hang on to her past as a beauty queen quite tightly, pushing a disinterested daughter down the same path.
Bliss’ father, played by Daniel Stern, is absolutely a delight. I don’t know where the hell he has been recently, but there was just something about his character in this movie that I loved. He’s the All-American, football watching, beer drinking dad, but he plays the role with such compassion that it’s tough not to see that he’s actually much smarter than he lets on. Stern has quite a few moments where he really shines, and it’s a nice welcome back for him.
The Hurl Scouts (Bliss’ Roller Derby team) has quite a lot of star power within it’s ranks as well. The film’s director Drew Barrymore, SNL’s Kristen Wiig, professional badass Zoe Bell, musician Eve all round out the ragtag group of skater chicks, and they all do very well in smal, yet very important roles. When you throw in Alia Shawkat as Bliss’ best friend, you have a very strong female cast that deserves a lot of praise for making the movie come across as true and fun to the audience. Toss in Juliette Lewis as the bad ass from the other team, and you’ve got a fantastic female cast. Who knew it could be done?
Barrymore’s direction was actually quite good. Having been in show business since BIRTH, one can only assume that she has gotten some pretty great advice through all her years on film sets. Here, she shows that she is more than capable of engaging an audience for two hours, and she makes some interesting choices that were all together enjoyable.
The only real weak link of the movie is Oliver, the quickly developed love interest of Bliss. Right off the bat, the guy seems like a major weenis, and by the end he doesn’t disappoint. Landon Pigg makes no bold choices in a movie otherwise full of them, and it really shows. Everything is textbook, Acting for Dummies kind of stuff, and he sleepwalks into cliche after cliche.
Another major surprise was Andrew Wilson. If you haven’t heard of him, maybe you’ve heard of his brothers Owen and Luke. Here he plays the coach of the Hurl Scouts, and he’s another fresh, fun, and surprisingly deep character. Roller Derby coach seems to be something he has a great passion for, and it shines through in Wilson’s performance. He tries and tries to motivate his team, but they seem uninterested in winning until Bliss comes along. Then, with that spark from a new player, the rest of the team feels a jolt of life and begin to take pride in victory.
Jimmy Fallon also makes an appearance as the announcer, and he’s actually not bad. It’s a small role, and no one (okay, maybe some people) ever said he didn’t have some talent. Here, he’s actually got some pretty good material to work with, and not knowing where the camera is to look into to ruin the take like he used to do on SNL is nowhere to be found.
But the stand-out, once again, is Page. She walks through this film owning every frame she’s in. You’ll know her from Juno, but she’s a much different character here. She’s more reserved, but also more aggressive. She doesn’t have the smarmy albeit lovable dialogue, here she’s more the every girl. I wish more people would give this film a chance. It’s a winner.
Overall, what we get with Whip It is enjoyment. It’s a fun, almost grittily real portrayal of a girl who just wants to do something different, and do something she loves. It doesn’t smack you in the face with sentimentality, but it does have the ability to pull on some heartstrings. It has a strong cast with Ellen Page leading the way, wonderful support from Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel, Stern, Andrew Wilson, and the Hurl Scouts. Oh, and Ellen Page gets down to Bra and Panties, wWhich automatically equals a DVD purchase from me.
Grade: 9.0/10 (Outstanding)