Whip It Review

(2.5 STARS)

The best thing I can say about “Whip It” is that it’s competent. It doesn’t make any major mistakes, and it tells its story well. Unfortunately, it’s all so safe that it’s hard to muster up much enthusiasm about it. The only interesting thing about it is the device it uses to tell its tired tale about a misfit group of underdogs who rally around a newcomer to be more successful than ever before. This device is roller derby, and it’s a hoot to see Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, and Juliette Lewis knock the shit out of each other. But beyond that, this film is as generic as films get.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) wants desperately to get out of her dull Texas hometown. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) thinks she can do this through beauty pageants, which will teach her important life lessons. Bliss hates them, but competes in order to keep peace at home. She finds her true calling with roller derby. Under the guise of taking an SAT class, she travels to Austin every night to practice with her teammates, the Hurl Scouts. And it turns out she’s a natural. She takes the league by storm, but she can only lead this double life for so long.

The best sequences in “Whip It” revolve around roller derby. It’s something I knew very little about, but the film gives you enough background information to keep you interested. Jimmy Fallon calls the play-by-play and gives the film most of its humor (although many of his jokes miss). And the direction by Barrymore (in her behind-the-camera debut) is steady enough that we don’t lose track of what’s going on.

Beyond that, the story is well-told, but painfully conventional. Bliss wants to find herself. She does. She realizes maybe she lost herself along the way to being happy. She learns a few important lessons about family, friendship, and being a woman. She fixes her mistakes. Everyone is happy. It’s like the filmmakers took every girl-power cliché in the book and threw them together into this film, which, as I said, thankfully has a different angle than most films of this sort.

The acting is average at best. Ellen Page plays a variation of Ellen Page—although the obnoxiousness of Juno is only present in a few scenes. Drew Barrymore, Kristin Wiig, and the rest of the Hurl Scouts all essentially play the same character. The best of the bunch is unsurprisingly Marcia Gay Harden. Her character seems like a caricature for most of the film, but a conversation with Bliss about three-quarters in shows the depth of her love and the reasons behind her stubbornness.

I’ll likely forget about “Whip It” in a week, but I didn’t think it was a total waste. There are a few good laughs to be had, and I enjoyed learning about roller derby. But with the talent involved, and the reasonably good reviews I’ve seen, I don’t think it was unfair of me to expect more out of the film. But for me, it’ll end up being a very minor blip on the 2009 radar.

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