Brandon's Word: Whip It, Whip It... Not So Good
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 2, 2009
Whip It, the first film directed by Drew Barrymore, above all else, feels like a directorial debut. Though, that's not to say that it's a complete failure -- but it certainly is not a resounding success. The film, set just outside Austin, Texas, is yet another remark on the metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood where Bliss Cavendar, played by forever-to-be-a-teenager Ellen Page, is struggling to become her own person, follow her own path while attempting to reconcile with the person she so recently was -- and most importantly, the person her parents still believe her to be. This coming-of-age story, like all of them, is framed by a unique draw for the main character. For Whip It, that draw is roller derby -- and for Bliss, roller derby is representative of the freedom she's never known, but has always longed for. Again, this is a story you've probably seen before. And it's not a story that's told in a particularly inventive way. But there are moments in Whip It that these slights cease to matter.
Most of these moments tend to involve either Bliss's parents, played by Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Harden, or Bliss's best friend Pash, played by Alia Shawkat. These relationships felt best informed and retained the most heart on screen. And for all its shortcomings (which, of course, I'll get to), Whip It never lacks heart. The chemistry on screen between Stern and Page splendidly elucidated an honest father-daughter relationship -- one between a father that, perhaps, always hoped for a son to cheer for from the stadium bleachers and a daughter who has her father tightly wound around her finger. The adversarial role played by Gay Harden, at odds with her daughter and willingly blind to her burgeoning adulthood, is spectacular. And Shawkat never fails to outshine Page whenever they're on screen together. Their characters, Bliss and Pash, feel like actual best friends, and most importantly, Pash feels like a real person who, unlike Bliss, handles the same issue of escaping their small town while taking agency over her life in a much more conventional (but believable) way. These relationships provide the foundation for the many struggles encountered by Bliss.
So, what of the main character Bliss? Well, this is where Whip It's first fractures begin to show. Ellen Page plays her part well -- her performance is at once understated and thoughtful. But it's her character, Bliss, that remains unbalanced and unfortunately flat. In a film that is entirely about this girl's decision to claim her own future, her decisions feel oddly forced upon her. When I should have felt that each new step forward was her own, they felt like artifices of the plot. Bliss is too often, and too coincidentally, thrust upon opportunities or complications, being carried instead of traveling there on her own accord. Aside from this, the rest of the ensemble cast are all serviceable, but their characters are more stereotypes than anything. Kristin Wiig as the single-mother mentor representing what could be if Bliss blindly follows in her footsteps is probably the most resonant of the derby girls, while the rest are all very one-dimensional caricatures of tough-as-nails, rebel females.
And as unbalanced as the characters are, the filmmaking itself is what causes the most problems. As I said, Whip It feels like a directorial debut. The directing is at best mediocre. The film's timing is haphazard and at times jarringly intrusive. Some scenes that felt as if they were building to something greater often ended without a climax whereas others reached their climax too early. Scenes, at times, played like very beautiful vignettes, some like music videos, others like low-brow comedy sketches -- without any of them being tied together by anything greater than the knowledge that I was watching a film so, of course, they all had to fit together. There was never a doubt in my mind about how the film would end or how it would reach its eventuality, but, unfortunately, even though I knew how it would all wrap up -- what I saw on screen paled in comparison to my own precognition. Barrymore seemed to be at a loss of how to film the fast-paced action scenes during the roller derby matches. It's not that hard to get a rise from me when telling an underdog sports story -- but the final match left so much to be desired. It all felt very amateurish, barely passable because it was infused with such a sense of warmth and, for the most part, issues that are universally relatable.
So, all in all, it was okay. While it made me well up with tears toward the end, it made me cringe due to its sheer mediocrity far more often. It's bolstered by a great soundtrack, but what indie isn't these days? There are some surely great performances and a few very funny bits, but more often than not it just falls flat. Whip It should have come to terms with being an indie romance or a coming-of-age story or an underdog sports indie, because as it stands, it is a failure as all three. There's plenty with which to relate -- but its slipshod directing and unfocused, off-balance characters and story telling cause Whip It to be, as is stated in the film, merely a celebration of mediocrity.