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Movie Review: Whip It

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Whip It is the most pleasant surprise I’ve had at the movies since Dirty Dancing – and that was a long time ago. Both are feel-good movies in the very best sense. A tad bit predictable, yes, but you still cheer for the characters regardless. They’re just too likable.

Whip It is set in the world of roller derby. Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page is delightful in this post-Juno role) just can’t share her mother’s enthusiasm for beauty pageant life. And when she has a chance encounter with three roller skating girls handing out derby fliers, she’s smitten. The punkish images on the sheets of paper fit perfectly with her rumblings of rebellion.

She is soon – secretly behind her mother’s back – auditioning for The Hurl Scouts, the worst team in the league, and making new friends like Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), and Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell proving that her charisma in Death Proof was no fluke) as well as new foes like arch rival skater Iron Maven (the always great sexy bad girl, Juliette Lewis). Her transition is made complete when she proves herself the fastest skater around and earns the name Babe Ruthless.

This all leads to lots of derby matches and hard knock-downs, and plenty of lessons learned. And it all plays out as you’d expect if you’ve seen many sports movies. Hint: try to forget all about The Bad News Bears before the lights go down or it’ll all seem just a bit too predictable. But, it doesn’t matter. You’ll be having too much fun enjoying the chemistry between these young women to even keep track of plot. The movie is a lot like simply hanging out with good friends.

Also woven through the movie is the expected conflict between Bliss and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Her dad (Daniel Stern looking older and rounder than I thought possible – I must be getting old) all the while tries ineffectively to keep his household running smoothly, his motto “pick your battles carefully.” And there is also Bliss’s infatuation with an alt-rocker that includes a rather playful though improbable make-out session at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s first outing as a director, and it shows around the edges and even down the middle a time or two. She shows a sure hand with actors, everyone seems to be having a great time and it works to great effect. All of the characters are entirely believable as people who spend a lot of time together, training, laughing, playing, fighting, and throwing food at each other.

But Barrymore doesn’t yet have the command of her craft to make her scattered scenes add up to much of a bigger picture. The movie has a shapeless quality about it. And Barrymore doesn’t yet have the confidence to let those scenes stand by themselves without ladling the music on a bit too thick.

Also, at one point, she smartly realizes that most moviegoers will have zero understanding of roller derby. So she includes a brief chalkboard lesson in the basics. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite have the skills yet to pull it off. What should have clarified things instead left me more puzzled that before.

Don’t pay much attention to these criticisms though. After all, when you hang out with friends, how artfully shaped is the party anyway? And who cares? All that really matters is the quality of the friendships and how much everyone laughs as they pick the food out of each other’s hair.

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