Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ellen Page On Wheels

Whip It

Ellen Page is a marvel in "Whip It." Her Best Actress nomination was no fluke, and she shows more expression and freedom here than she ever did even in "Juno," and that's perhaps partially because she's not stuck under the confines of Diablo Cody's snarky writing. Page's sharply smart performance is in the role of another lost teenage girl, except this time she leans a little more toward the nice girl side. She plays Bliss Cavendar, whose plucky and down-to-earth attitude is appealing and whose defensive selfishness is understandable. She's a girl trying to find her place, she's only 17, and yet she finds herself in the Roller Derby rink with brute women in their 30s. And in there, she's able to let herself go.

"Whip It" showcases Drew Barrymore as a first-time director, and it proves to be a very strong debut. The movie is written by an actual Roller Derby girl, Shauna Cross, and the screenplay is based off her novel, "Derby Girl." Barrymore keeps a keen focus on an amiable tone that keeps things tender, heartwarming, and funny. She never goes for revolutionary, but she never has to anyway. It allows for a movie that is joyously likable and impossible to dismiss. This is a simple coming-of-age story, and we know where it's going and how it's going to work out almost instantly. And yet that doesn't keep it from being enormously entertaining. The surprisingly rough-and-tumble athletic sport of women's Roller Derby is used as an ideal backdrop for an emphasis on sheer girl power. There are rules to Roller Derby, yes, but the details are never slaved over. What we understand is that you go around that track as fast as you can and try not to get knocked down while you're knocking as many other people down as you can to get in the lead. Yeah, kind of like growing up.

Bliss lives in a small town in Texas and works at a tiny diner with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat). Her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) is old-fashioned and pushes Bliss into the Bluebonnet beauty pageant that is sickening in its standard to uphold 1950s values about womanhood. She purses her lips at any sign of rebellion from Bliss, and so, the girl has learned to comply and play along. Then one day she comes across an ad for Roller Derby. She sneaks off from her parents with Pash to go see the ladies on wheels in downtown Austin, and she immediately falls in love.

Bliss decides to try out, and so, strapping on her pink Barbie skates, she begins to practice for the first auditions. She takes the community bus back to Austin and gets greeted by the women with tough pseudonyms and tattoos. The team is led by the scruffy coach known as Razor (Andrew Wilson) who wears short jean shorts and tries to encourage the girls to care about the fact that their team, the Hurl Scouts, has always come in second. Bliss lies about her age in order to become part of the team, and the veterans immediately welcome her to the bunch. Before she knows it, she has the name Babe Ruthless and is the poster girl for the team.

Having to hide the Roller Derby from her mother, she lies to her parents by saying she had to change her schedule at work for an SAT class. And it just so turns out that Bliss' dad (Daniel Stern) escapes from his wife, too, by cutting out of work early and watching sports in his van. Bliss also meets a boy, Oliver (Landon Pigg), one she immediately locks eyes with and who seems like a dream. This is just another one of those coming-of-age milestones that had to be squeezed in. The thing is, even though Barrymore mostly bases her movie on clich├ęs, they are fine, and she and her cast make an admirable attempt to make them seem fresh.

What's most striking is Barrymore's fond connection with her actors as she finds a big part for every supporting role. Take Bliss' parents for example who have a dynamic all on their own. Marcia Gay Harden, especially, brings dimensions to Bliss' mom that'll spring up on you. She starts off as a prim and demanding mother, but then she goes into different directions later on. You see, she's a mail carrier who needs to light up a cigarette when things get rough. Even Jimmy Fallon as the comedic and enthusiastic Roller Derby announcer is key in helping to point out the subculture of the sport. And Andrew Wilson is apparently the hidden gem among the Wilson brothers.

And then there are the skater vets who really steal the show. Barrymore plays Smashley Simpson, Kristin Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem, Zoe Bell (of Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof") plays Bloody Holly, rapper Eve plays Rosa Sparks, and Ari Graynor plays Eva Destruction. There's also the intensely competitive Iron Maven of the opposing team who's played by Juliette Lewis, and she becomes Bliss' rival. It's fitting, too, because Page has the looks of being Lewis' understudy. It's worth noting that most of these actresses did all their own skating and stunts. That includes Page when she does that wildly remarkable jump.

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