Shape it up, get straight, go forward, move ahead

whip it

There is perhaps nothing more endearing about Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, the roller derby film Whip It, than its delighted conviction in the value of sisterhood. More specifically, it is Barrymore’s complete immersion in the concept without any hint whatsoever that it might be something that needs to presented as novel or with any sort of forcefulness. In her view, it seems, the inherent reward of such bonding is self-evident. Her film doesn’t present an argument in favor of sisterly togetherness. It depicts it with loving certainty, with a pervasive sense that absolutely anyone will be ready to throw in with its spirited camaraderie. It’s the film’s greatest strength, but it also holds it back somewhat. Nice as it may be as a philosophy, it drains some of the drama from the film.

Otherwise, Barrymore is a surprisingly capable director. She largely bypasses the sort of visual showing off that often dogs first-time directors, particularly those who’ve operated prominently in the film business for extended periods of time before taking their turn in most important canvas folding chair on the set. Instead the film is direct and cleanly constructed. There’s nothing wildly innovative going on within her frames, but Barrymore skillfully handles the established conventions of traditional narrative storytelling. There’s a fleeting moment that exemplifies this as the diner waitress played by Ellen Page is struggling to wrestle a bag of trash into the business’s dumpster. When it finally falls in, the object tumbling out of the way reveals that her recently estranged best friend has helped her complete the job. It’s a nice visual cue of the friendship getting revived and smart use of concealed information. It’s simple, but it’s something that the likes of Michael Bay and Brett Ratner can’t do. What’s more, they don’t really understand why it’s useful. That Barrymore has a quick command of that particular film vocabulary makes her a welcome addition to the ranks of directors.

She doesn’t fare quite as well with the actual roller derby action, but the more the film goes on the more apparent it becomes that these scenes are exceedingly difficult to pull off. It’s several women in tight groups skating in circles on a relatively small rink. There’s only so much that can be done without making the camera jittery to the point of distraction. Keeping it straightforward might make those sequences a little drabber than they need to be, but it’s better than the probable alternative.

Barrymore’s belief in the power of just being part of the team, one of the girls, can lead to many of the characters not being developed beyond their colorful track names like Smashley Simpson and Rosa Sparks. Evidence that the clearest path towards bypassing that problem involves getting actors that can elevate the roles arrives every time Ellen Page is onscreen. Her character is fully standard-issue in so many ways: a small-town dreamer who learns to come out of her shell when she bonds with some ruffians who represent a completely different approach to life. Her parents have other expectations about how she’ll spend her free time and that particularly conflict tracks in almost exactly the way anyone whose seen a movie or two would expect. Page gives it all a deeply felt authenticity. The character is smart and dogged, and yet completely and recognizably different from her other prominent roles in recent years. She wrings out the false details with the cleverness of her approach, the honesty of her work. In many respects, it’s not a flashy role–surprising given that it involves taking on a persona dubbed Babe Ruthless–but Page makes it compelling.

Barrymore doesn’t tie it all together authoritatively. There are flaws, chinks, little blind spots in the construction. There’s also an abundance of moments that demonstrate she’s a uniquely empathetic storyteller. All in all, it’s a good start, and Barrymore shows enough promise that it’s worth being interested in her next spin around the rink.

(Posted simultaneously at “Jelly-Town!”)

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