Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When a Problem Comes Along: WHIP IT

It’s always risky for an established actor to take on directorial duties. They could become the next Clint Eastwood or the next C. Thomas Howell, and it’s nearly impossible to tell which kind they’ll be until the finished product is available for scrutiny. Luckily for Drew Barrymore, her directorial debut is Whip It, a fast-paced, crowd-pleaser that announces her as a director to watch. She generously allows the actors in the film room to breathe, room to explore their characters in deeper and more unexpected ways than you would think would be allowed film that, prior to viewing, sounds so schematic and predictable.

Ellen Page stars as a sassy small-town teen who feels stuck in her world of beauty pageants and standardized tests until she discovers an outlet she never knew she needed at a roller derby. It sounds like a typical coming-of-age, parents-don’t-get-it, teen sports movie, and indeed it has all the beats that such a film would require like the moment where the adolescent lead finds a secret thrill in a new passion, the moment where the mismatched group of outsiders take the teen into their group, the moment where the parents find out about what their kid has really been doing all this time. (See: Saturday Night Fever, Breaking Away, etcetera). And yet, the movie isn’t a typical example of that type, hitting those beats in unexpectedly refreshing and satisfying ways. If it’s not quite Breaking Away, and it isn’t, it’s not for lack of trying.

Page gives her best performance yet (yes, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno), giving her character a depth and a yearning that ring true. It also helps that she’s surrounded by wonderful acting. Alia Shawkat (Maebe in Arrested Development) plays her best friend, their rapport also ringing true. Every time they share the screen, it feels like watching two old friends in the way they subtly read each other’s moods, keep long-running jokes moving even farther, warbling along with the radio, and breaking down into fits of giggling. It’s a relationship that feels so truthful, that when a cute guy (Landon Pigg) comes along, making eyes at Page, I genuinely cared about how he would change the girls’ friendship.

Like the friendship, Page’s interactions with her parents hit a particularly truthful nerve in the mixture of awkward candor and unfathomable love that often develops between a teenager and parents. There’s a core of mutual respect in their relationship that feels right. Daniel Stern, as her father, has a loveably awkward sense of a father struggling with connecting to his teenage daughter, careful to say the right thing, desperately wanting to not seem desperate in his attempts to stay an important figure in her life. Marcia Gay Harden, as her mother, is not some stage-mother stereotype, despite early scenes that threaten to push her in that direction. Instead, she’s a woman who very much wants her daughter to succeed. She’s not closed-minded; she merely stubbornly wants her daughter to be great. There’s a feeling of genuine love in the parent-child relationship on display here, not just snarky dysfunction that’s so often a teen-movie cop out. A quiet dialogue scene that finds Harden and Page sitting on the floor of their kitchen, engaging in an intense heart-to-heart, is one of the most memorable scenes I saw in any movie of 2009.

It’s memorable because Barrymore knows the strengths of her actors and the strengths of the script by Shauna Cross. She hasn’t drained her movie of stylistic flourish, but she isn’t suffering from first-time director look-what-I-can-do waywardness either. She knows when she can set up a fairly simple dialogue scene and trust that her actors will more than carry the moment. This is an enormously entertaining film as a result, with a smart, fast-paced script and great actors to perform it. The great indie-rock soundtrack and the vibrant colors are only an added bonus.

Speaking of added bonus, there’s the roller derby girls themselves. Played by the likes of Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, Ari Graynor and Drew Barrymore (humbly giving herself a bit part), the athletes have great sense of comedic timing and are an energetic source of frenzied fun on and off the track, even if they are forced into a food fight in the one wrong note the movie manages to hit. Characters on the periphery of the derby are entertaining as well, especially a goofy announcer (Jimmy Fallon) and a sarcastic but supportive coach (Andrew Wilson). But, even with such minor male influences, this movie is a blast of girl-power gusto. Whip It is a hugely entertaining experience, a kind of feel-good movie that doesn’t go out of its way to make you feel good. I just had no other option when confronted with a movie so endearing, energetic, and sweet. This is the kind of movie that could have felt common, but is instead told uncommonly well.

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