Why "Whip It" when there are thousands of other films at TIFF we could see probably many of them that need the love?
Morbid curiosity got the better of us? Something like that. We'll admit, the trailers looked a lot better than we expected and the cast, which includes folks like Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon and Daniel Stern, is fairly intriguing. Still part of us did feel guilty that we weren't watching a Claire Denis movie. Anywhoo...
The directorial debut of actress Drew Barrymore, the roller-derby-dramedy centers on Bliss Cavendar — played by Ellen Page in her first post-"Juno" role — a typical small-town Texan teenager who is an aspiring tomboy and comically misunderstood by her parents and made to compete in beauty pageants by her faded debutante mom (Marcia Gay Harden). It also has apparently 75 pop song crammed into it so that sort of drew our curiosity as well.
Ultimately sweet, charming and cute as one would at least hope and expect from this type of picture, "Whip It," sure as hell took its time to get there. The first hour of set up for Ellen Page's character's small-town Texas life was inert and almost comatose. If there was ever a come-from-behind victory for a film at TIFF this year, this coming-of-age family acceptance dramedy would be it, but it almost arrived too late.
The first half is so curiously uninvolving it felt like a picture only a 13-year-old girl could love, but it does rally in the third quarter to become an endearing and sweet tale of familial understanding. But it's the sports comedy and opening parts of the film that are strikingly dull and threaten to derail the picture. Most of the humor is simply unfunny, cutsey and barely chuckle-worthy, but as the picture progresses, the tone and pace finally seem to coalesce. And Barrymore's assuredness seems to shine in the last half, but its lazy, aimless beginning was worrisome (we really wanted to walk out early on).
It's only until the budding giddy romance between Ellen Page's Bliss Cavendar and Landon Pigg's Oliver the indie rocker starts to bloom did we begin to feel a few butterflies and therefore an emotion that wasn't simply tedium.
The teen coming of age serio-comic tale starts off predictably and blandly, Ellen Page's small town Texas life is enervating and soul-crushing thanks to her domineering mother's obsession with beauty pageant excellence. Her father (an eventually excellent Daniel Stern when he'd given something to do) is well-meaning, but too turtle-shell timid to rock the boat and defy mom (a one-note Marcia Gay Harden who eventually becomes a imperfect mom, warts and all human when the underwritten character finally gets a chance to shine).
Page and her best friend ("Arrested Development" actress Alia Shawkat) kill time at a shitty diner until the the hip Oasis of Austin is discovered and a purpose exposes itself; a life in the all-girl roller derby world which unveils a cast of kooky female characters who offer some comic relief (A goofy Drew Barrymore), player hatin' villains (Juliette Lewis), soulful wise moms (Kirsten Wiig) and underwritten stand-ins (rapper Eve and 'Nick & Norah' player Ari Graynor, Zoe Bell).
While the girl-empowering cliches are somewhat evident, they're nowhere near as obnoxious as they could have been and eventually when the story and characters settle in, the movie finds its groove. While the action/sports part of the story really does nothing but move the story forward and deliver mostly hokey laughs (the team coach, Andrew Wilson provides cornball humor, but the best per-genuine-laugh average — with better writing he'd be one of the film's better stand outs, but as it is he does an admirably serviceable job). However, as much as the sports-story is listless (unless you really care about roller derby), Barrymore proves herself to be very capable directing some seamless and complicated camera/sports action and its nice to see her having her done her homework.
While "Whip It," is slathered with contemporary music, it surprisingly does a first-rate job of not overselling it, with good songs used subtly and tastefully (American Analog Set) and savoring big pop music moments (MGMT, Radiohead) for special, key occasions.
When "Whip It," feels destined for average sports/ feel-good movie status (see a mix of Richard Linklater's "School Of Rock," and "Bad News Bears,") it starts to take on some sweetness and emotional weight in the last half, taking on some Jason Reitman-like contemporary dramedy tones and they come not a second too late.
After all the sports victory-come-from-behind-rag-tag team cheerfulness, laughs and cliches are exhausted, what "Whip It," reveals itself to be is a modest little family dramedy about independence of voice, spirit and self and while they don't take on epic proportions, its nice to see the little picture cross the finish line with pride and spunky resilience.
What begins as a film that feels like only a tweener or easily satisfied popcorn munchers would swallow becomes an endearing and scrappy little gender-neutral tale about forging your path or as Fleetwood Mac would say: you can go your own way. [B]