Monday, March 21, 2011

Whip It ! (2009)

There's a great moment when the safety catches of your life start to come off. Its an identifiable point, its the bit where the sky isn't the limit anymore simply because the sky was really a fake ceiling and there's a big huge world out there. We have those moments of shifting paradigms at different stop-gaps of time, but that first time is the one you hold the dearest.

Whip It ! captures that moment for a small town girl in Texas, in the guise of a conventional underdogs-for-the-win story.

Here you have Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page - though I can't seem to actually call her anything but Juno) in the small, small town of Bodeen, Texas. She's been groomed to participate in an endless line of pageants since a young age, her mother firmly pushing her towards yet another tired "inspiration" speech as the movie begins. Her days otherwise go by with her friend Pash (Alia Shakawat - though again, she can be nothing but Arrested Development's Maebe for me), waitressing at a wonderfully ridiculous looking restaurant with a giant pig's head adorning it. Life is just that daily drill - and then, she picks up a flyer for the Austin Roller Derby, saunters in to check out what the sport's about, and has the boundaries of her life fall away. Turns out, she's not half bad at this thing, and in no time is recruited by the Hurl Scouts for the championship game.

As is evident from this synopsis, this is the sports movie-meets-chick flick, which means it has to mine the bucketload of stereotypes from both those genres. What is admirable about Whip It ! then, is just how incredibly fresh it seems. The key to any sports movie, particularly when its something as niche as roller derby, is making sure you care about the characters, and you incorporate their physicality into the actual sequences, so you're not just watching colourful whizzing bodies move around you. Both these things, Whip It ! accomplishes excellently.

This is a movie in love with ALL its characters : no one is a broad strokes villian here, and when the lovable protagonist has her stumbling moments of self-pity, she is refreshingly called out for those as well. The roller derby sequences are captured with a kinetic vibe intact - I found myself cheering particularly hard whenever the titular "whip it" move was carried out in the rink, and again groaning with the crowd whenever a particularly hard fall is taken.

A lot of credit here to Drew Barrymore : this is her directorial debut, and amongst many many admirable directorial choices, let me say the first is to let her own character in the movie remain firmly in the sideline, letting the main story and characters breath without any unnecessary shoehorning. This avoidance of directorial hubris works well, and is coupled with a great ironic eye, which manages to steer the generally heartwarming proceedings from devolving into saccharine.

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