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Entries in Whip It [2009] (1)

Monday
Oct052009

Whip It, 2009

Skating Around the Issues

I’m not generally a fan of remakes, but I’m looking forward to someone dusting off Whip It ten years from now and turning it into the interesting and fun all-girl roller derby movie it tries so hard to be. I’m clearly not the target audience for this film, but director Drew Barrymore goes out of her way to not only exclude me from the story but to actively scold me for being a lame-ass “boy” for 111 minutes.

Let me back up.

The problem I have with so-called “chick flicks” is not that they're made for women, but that they’re manufactured to appeal to the kind of woman you’d never hope to meet—or aspire to be. They often confuse female empowerment with a hatred of men (either overtly, or by perpetuating the tired stereotypes that we all love sports, power tools, and excessive carousing), while putting forth the idea that true happiness comes from finding the right man and enjoying mani-pedis and chocolate ice cream with a coven of non-threatening girlfriends.

This might be forgivable if the heroines of these pictures were at all smart. While they might hold day jobs as lawyers or book editors, their social lives are stifled by clumsiness or an ice-veined bitchiness that can only be thawed by the attention of a dashing cad (see The Ugly Truth or The Proposal; on second thought, don’t). Chick flicks may have a problem with the male sex, but their unflattering, unrealistic portrayal of women can, at their worst, border on misogyny.

Whip It attempts to break some of those awful stereotypes, but it gets so caught up in the familiar that it suffers an identity crisis and eventual full-blown psychotic episode. I really wanted to like this movie (though I had to practically medal in mental gymnastics to separate Ellen Paige from her grating Juno role). Going in, I knew nothing about roller derby, small-town Texas living, or what it’s like to be a confused seventeen-year-old girl; having now seen a film that is ostensibly about those things, I’m still in the dark.

Paige plays Bliss Cavendar, a sullen teenager who lives in a small town outside Austin, Texas. She and her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat) work at the Oink Joint slinging grease to hicks; the girls desperately want to shake off their stifling small-town and…do something. To be honest, I didn’t realize they were supposed to be high schoolers until they popped up in a locker scene—which took place, I might add, in the most sparsely populated hallway I’ve seen since Slaughter High, another low-budget movie featuring kids that deserve to die (“just kidding”).

No, Paige and Shawkat are obviously in their twenties, which makes their juvenile behavior seem less rebellious and more pathetic. Pash convinces Bliss to dye her hair blue right before the local pageant that opens the picture; Bliss does so and pisses off her square mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden. I guess the audience (again, not me) is supposed to laugh or feel empowered by this figurative middle finger to conformity, but I just got depressed, realizing I had another ninety-plus minutes to spend with an actress playing a character five years her junior that acts half that age.

One day while Bliss is shopping for look-at-me boots in the local head shop (of which there are several in every nowhere town in America), she’s handed a flyer for a roller derby game in Austin. She and Pash sneak off to the big city in a stunt that I swear was stolen from an episode of Growing Pains. At the arena/warehouse, they are wowed by muscular tough girls who skate around in circles trying to knock each other down. After the match, Bliss meets one of the teams and is encouraged to try out. I’ll skip over the requisite tryout montage (in which Bliss uses a pair of magical Traveling Pants-style skates that she hasn’t worn in a decade) and get to the good stuff. She makes the team, falls in love with a guy in a band, and embarks on a journey of self discovery that lets her burst her shy, awkward bubble to become…Juno.

Yes, there’s a spectacularly abrupt mid-film switch where Biss begins snarking it up and defying authority. She alienates her friends and family in pursuit of derby greatness; that is until one of her new heroes, nicknamed Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), tells her to stop being a brat and treat people with respect. This was the only genuine scene in the whole picture, and I was frustrated to realize how great Whip It might have been had Drew Barrymore ditched Ellen Paige and made a real movie about Wiig’s mid-thirties single mom who loves roller derby.

But, no, we’re left with a half-baked third act involving bogus teary apologies, followed by a Big Game where Mom and Dad and Sis show up to Cheer On the Passionate Daughter Who’s Finally Found the Courage to Follow Her Dreams. Christ, the only thing missing in Whip It’s climax is a goddamned slow clap. On top of that, there are some truly jaw-dropping developments, such as Pash falling madly, randomly in love with her Oink Joint boss, and Bliss dumping her rocker boyfriend after the most weasel-y, tacked-on infidelity sub-plot I’ve seen in years. Oh, and we also get a food fight that takes place in some mystical kitchen/cafeteria where the owners don’t seem to mind such things.

Circling back to the men in this movie, I’d like to note that the four of them are nothing more than insulting penile placeholders. You have the clueless boss; the hapless but caring dad; the really smart, interested coach who is constantly shit on by his all-female team (but in a fun, spirited way that is in no way demeaning); and the long-haired, heroin-chic rocker that is shown to be unfaithful simply so that the movie can assure female viewers that they don’t need no man to get their propers. This same treatment is not given to women in so-called “guy” movies. Sure, women are often objectified in action flicks and sex comedies, but there are at least one or two in any given film who are painted as driven and strong, and who eventually earn the respect of the films’ loutish men. Cinematic female empowerment can, in fact, exist in a world where guys are caring, smart, and ambitious (beyond the ubiquitous gay best friend roles); movies like Whip It are afraid to admit that.

Note: I should probably mention something about Drew Barrymore as a director, seeing as this is her debut in that role. I'll say that she should have fired her cinematographer, whose track footage is so repetitive as to be the equivalent of a sci-fi director filming a chase in a “labyrinthine” alien spaceship by having the main actor run along the same stretch of twenty-foot backdrop for ten takes and using edits to create the illusion of expanse. Barrymore should also never have appeared in the movie; her “Smashley Simpson” character is like a live version of Animal the Muppet—cloying, loud, and inconsistent; it’s her worst performance since 1992’s Poison Ivy (you know, in her pre/post Drew Barrymore phase). Staying off-camera certainly would have allowed her to focus on some of the sloppier storytelling aspects, such as:

1. Why does only one character in the entire movie sound like they’re actually from Texas?

2. How early do roller derby players show up before a big game? Early enough for a determined Dad to plead with them to travel all the way back to his suburban town so that they can plead with his daughter to travel all the way back to Austin to suit up and compete in said big game?

3. If the cops shut down a warehouse in which the derby games are held because of overcrowding on one night, would it not stand to reason that they’d keep an eye on the place—and, by extension, shut down the venue on the night of the sport’s biggest game?

4. Is there really no penalty for knocking a high school student over a stairway railing, even if the script wants us to believe she really deserved it?

5. Is it just a “kids-do-the-darnedest-things” moment when your underage daughter tricks you into letting her down a whole can of beer?

 

6. At film's end, Bliss announces her intention to move to Austin. To do what? Roller skate professionally? Or is The Oink Joint opening an Austin franchise?

If you’d like to see questions seven through forty-five, please make a request in the “Comments” section, and I’ll consider devoting a special column to this shit.