Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Lesser Barrymore

Drew Barrymore makes her directing debut with this girl-power action comedy, a sort of Kansas City Bomber meets Juno. The movie is based on Shauna Cross’s clever young-adult novel Derby Girl, in which Bliss, a 17-year-old bored with her small-town Texas life and beauty pageant-obsessed mother, secretly joins a women’s roller-derby team in Austin.

The premise has abundant appeal, especially for adolescent girls, and with
Juno star Ellen Page, a 22-year-old actress blessed with convincing teenage looks, a relentless retro-rock soundtrack and lots of derby action, the movie should have been irresistible. But it's a flabby affair, with a weak script unhelped by inexperienced direction. Cross, a former derby skater, adapted her own book, yet strangely, much of its wit was lost in translation. Page's acting is fine, but her pretty, slender looks make her a wildly unlikely derby champ (Juliette Lewis, as Bliss's hard-bitten rival, is more persuasive), and emphasize the silliness of the notion of bone-breaking roller derby as a self-empowerment strategy for teen girls. You're not supposed to side with her disapproving parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern), but you do: you worry about their cute teenage daughter getting permanently maimed in a ridiculous "sport." Neither are you persuaded that this sardonic, combat-boot-wearing girl would last for one moment on the beauty pageant circuit, no matter how vigorous her mom's machinations.

The team Bliss skates with is called the Hurl Scouts, and they compete in short little Girl Scout uniforms: the soft-porn element of roller derby is mostly unexplored but is never far from awareness. Like the underdog Hurl Scouts,
Whip It rallies briefly in the stretch with some strong scenes in which Bliss makes amends to her deceived mom (helped by the fact that Marcia Gay Harden brings so much dimension to the part) and betrayed best girlfriend Pash (Alia Shawkat). The unevenness suggests that had Barrymore focused less on music, makeup and mayhem and more on real storytelling, the movie could have been a resounding success. As it is, many will enjoy it for the spectacle, and the hell with the story.

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