Roller derby? In 2009? Ya, Drew Barrymore went there. A bold move for the actress venturing into the world of directing. “Whip It” is a girl-power-laced action, drama, comedy, underdog-sports film all at once – with as much underlying identity crisis as the teens it portrays.
But Barrymore didn’t throw caution to the wind with the project, supported by a solid – albeit unexpected – cast, the film was in good hands. Ellen Page, famous for her role as Juno, stars as Bliss Cavendar, (decidedly un-pregnant this time) but not without a rebellious streak. Rather than getting knocked up, she escapes her banal, small town existence by living the clandestine life of a roller derby star. Barrymore herself appears as Smashlee Simpson, a tough, fight-prone and tattoo-covered member of the Hurl Scouts, Bliss’ roller derby team. Indie-movie heavyweights contributed to the production of the film as well – Director of Photography Robert Yeoman (Rushmore) makes his mark on several beautifully crafted sequences.
These scenes stand out against a flat plotline: Bliss is a typical high schooler who lives in a bland town, works at a burger joint and has a loyal best friend. Her dad loves football, her mom wishes Bliss would be a pageant girl like her sister. Frustrated by her situation, she channels her rebellious streak and finds freedom by joining an anarchistic roller derby team.
At its core the film is undeniably scripted; it uses every possible stereotype and cliché. Even the dialogue sounds stilted and contrived, and the audience is acutely conscious of it throughout.
During a passage of particularly banal dialogue, a man in the audience behind me snorted, and after being shushed by the person next to him, blurted, “What? That was just so corny!”
Yes, corny indeed. But consciously so. It’s as if middle-America and the concept of teen angst were distilled to their most quintessential marrow and shaped into a film. Or perhaps the process was entirely opposite (albeit with the same end): to take Hollywood’s most over-used, blatant platitudes and compound them into a 111-minute procession of clichés.
It would be difficult to imagine an individual who had even a modicum of sensory perception (not to mention aesthetic discernment) remaining ignorant of the film’s rampant unoriginality. So, clearly, either Drew Barrymore is entirely incapable of perceiving reality (I’m not ruling out this option), or she crafted the film intentionally.
So the question I walked out with was: is it possible to succeed in being so over-saturated with clichés as to become an endearing decoction of the American experience? Does it actually work?
We all remember the flurry of heroic, underdog sports movies produced a few years ago (this period, along with the deluge of superhero movies, will be collectively referred to by cinematographers and critics centuries from now as The Dark Ages of Film). And comedies, dramas and teen-angst films come at a dime a dozen. Nothing original there.
…But maybe a grand amalgam of every overused plotline is just what we need right now.
“Whip It” is a lovable fusion of “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Juno” and “We Are the Titans,” set to a superb soundtrack laced with Jens Lekman, The Ramones and MGMT. It’s got just enough indie flair – especially apparent in several beautifully filmed scenes to make it appealing, but not redolent of hipster-ness. It is the first indie film ever to have been constructed solely out of blatantly main-stream and unoriginal parts. It has a moral. It has Ellen Page. It has a tattooed and pierced roller derby chick called Jabba the Slut.
Maybe “Whip It,” a shameless patchwork of over used stereotypes, is a brilliantly novel creation.