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Review: Whip It

There’s a lot of underlying potential here, but there seems to have been no one around to whip it into shape.

Whip It
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

As a roller derby wannabe eager to join a team of older, tattooed skater chicks in Whip It, pocket-sized Ellen Page once again inhabits a mildly angsty teen on the cusp of womanhood with middling success, though her performance as aspiring punk Bliss Cavendar is consistently undercut by the film’s irksome, preteen sensibility that has it building dramatic crescendos out of episodes of petty backbiting and forging bonding moments out of, among other things, food fights. Drew Barrymore, serving as director in addition to appearing as foul-happy skater Smashley Simpson (couldn’t she have picked a better name? How about Dirty Gertie?), consistently errs on the side of broad, immature comedy and exposes her limitations as a first-time director with her reliance on weirdly anachronistic Americana tropes that were moldy in the 1970s, such as Bliss’s stuck-in-the-‘50s, pageant-obsessed mother (Marcia Gay Harden, as grim as a Todd Solondz character throughout), her choice to rebel with a blue dye job, and her waitressing gig at a lonely roadside diner deep in the heart of Texas. The combined result is something of a heightened, retro-reality for the film, though one Barrymore clearly stumbled into out of a misunderstanding of—or disinterest in—how today’s teenagers live and learn.

For Bliss, the transformation from sulking debutante to a speed-demon rechristened as Babe Ruthless occurs swiftly after her successful tryout for a local Bad News Bears-style loser derby troop, whose members include Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig, sadly limited to a couple of zingers), Rosa Sparks (hip-hop singer Eve), and Bloody Holly (stuntwoman Zoe Bell, continuing to overstay her Tarantino-enabled welcome in the acting profession). It also creates an instant rivalry with opposing team star Iron Maven (a weathered-looking but welcome Juliette Lewis) that will hinge on the loudly-telegraphed moment when Maven discovers that Bliss forged her tryout application by shaving five years off her age. However, a proper showdown between these opponents on the track is not in the cards due to the film’s numerous skating scenes being hampered by an obvious skill ceiling that prevents bravura camerawork and precludes the kind of bone-crunching derby spills one would hope for. A climactic moment in which Bliss performs a rather lame trick move during a race is even aggressively slow-motioned, as if to prove to us that someone put some work into these shrug-worthy skating scenes.

In their respective supporting turns as a hapless coach and an event announcer, Andrew Wilson and Barrymore’s Fever Pitch co-star Jimmy Fallon pick up as much comedic slack as possible, landing the occasional one-liner and sometimes just mercifully taking the focus off the derby girls; the skaters are often framed together in tight one-shots during which they seem to be simply riffing, exhibiting little understanding of their own characters, let alone each others’. Other rays of comedic light eventually come from Daniel Stern as Bliss’s bemused, beer-swilling pop and Amreeka’s Alia Shawkat as Bliss’s intermittently amusing best friend, though even with this wealth of acting talent at her fingertips Barrymore proves unable to ground her paper-thin main characters into any kind of relatable reality or invest their hokey, small-town goings on with some color and directorial invention. There’s a lot of underlying potential here, but there seems to have been no one around to whip it into shape.

Cast: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, Juliette Lewis, Eve, Zoe Bell, Andrew Wilson, Daniel Stern, Jimmy Fallon Director: Drew Barrymore Screenwriter: Shauna Cross Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 111 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2009 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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