Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bang On!: Drew Barrymore's Whip It (2009)

One of the most entertaining, inspiring and downright joyous American films of the past several years, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009) is one of the great should have been blockbusters in recent memory and it’s a shame that more film goers haven’t embraced it. Armed with a clever and moving screenplay by Shauna Cross (who adapted it from her own book Derby Girl), a wonderful cast and sharp direction from Barrymore, Whip It is a stirring coming of age film that is equal parts funny, knowing and insightful.

Teenage outsider Bliss Cavendar can’t seem to find any sort of direction in her hometown of Bodeen, Texas and she spends most of days with her best-friend Pash at a local restaurant where they both work. Bliss, who is burdened with a caring but over-ambitious mother and a gentle but too laid-back father, begins to discover herself when she joins an Austin Roller-Derby team called the Hurl Scouts. Re-christened Babe Ruthless by her teammates, and new friends, Bliss becomes a star of the team and begins to figure out just who she really is, even if that means going against her mother’s wishes of her attending an ivy-league school and becoming the ‘proper’ woman she never was.

Cross had adapted her novel Derby Girl as a screenplay back in 2007 but had trouble getting it picked up by any studios, even though it came across the desk of several. The script found a home in 2008 when Drew Barrymore fell in love with the material and optioned it with Mandate Pictures and her own company Flower Films. One of the most beloved actors of the past few decades, Barrymore had been long been interested in stepping behind the camera for a change and, with Derby Girl, she finally found the perfect material for her first directorial gig.

Drew Barrymore was extremely hands on during the post-production for Derby Girl, now entitled Whip It, and was pivotal in selecting both the film’s cast and soundtrack (she would eventually call the selection of songs her own mix-tape for her fans) and it was clear from the get-go that she had more than enough dedication and passion to make up for her inexperience behind the camera. Nervous Mandate executives had no need to worry about Barrymore as a director though as she excelled working with her actors and crew and proved to be an economical and efficient first-time filmmaker. Also, even though she was working from someone else's material, Barrymore managed to connect Whip It to her own life and background, a move that makes the film feel intensely personal...which it no doubt is to Barrymore.

Whip It is serviced greatly by a superlative cast made up of solid character actors and newcomers, many of whom heard about the film via personal phone calls from Barrymore inviting them to come aboard. Seasoned actors such as Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern and Juliette Lewis jumped at the chance to work on Barrymore’s first film as a director and several of Drew’s friends such as Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon (who had proven so memorable with Drew in the fantastic Fever Pitch from a few years before) and stunt woman extraordinaire Zoe Bell were also brought on board for able support. Barrymore, who cast herself as the delightfully named Smashley Simpson, also snagged two of the most promising newcomers around, Alia Shawkat (who had proven so wonderful on Arrested Development) and Nashville born singer Landon Pigg for her Whip It, but the film’s success would ultimately rest on the shoulders of the 21 year old Ellen Page as Bliss, who is wonderfully moving and poetic throughout the film.

Ellen Page had been acting since the late nineties but she didn’t really begin getting deserved attention until her startling turn in 2005’s Hard Candy, a shocking film that showed Page as a powerhouse talent in the making. That promise was solidified with Page’s remarkable turn in Juno, for which she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Actress in 2007 (an award which I think she should have won). Whip It should have solidified Ellen Page as one of the premiere actors of her generation but an unfortunate Juno backlash had already set in by the time Barrymore’s film failed to captivate audiences upon its release, leaving Page’s wonderful performance nearly completely overlooked. No matter though as Whip It has future cult-classic written all over it and Ellen Page’s work driving it will eventually be recognized.

While Whip It is very much an actor’s film, Barrymore’s direction guides the work with a confident, and refreshingly unshowy, hand throughout. Unlike so many actors turned directors Drew never makes the mistake of trying to upstage the material and, with Whip It, she shows herself as a smart and subtle filmmaker with a real confidence in Cross’ script and her fabulous cast. Her direction is both stylish and relaxed and when she does take visual chances (such as the breathtaking underwater sequence between Page and Pigg) she does so with a real intelligence and vivacity.

To help on her first feature, Barrymore wisely chose one of her favorite cinematographers along and (frequent Wes Anderson collaborator) Robert Yeoman proved to be an ideal choice as Whip It is wonderfully vibrant looking and colorful. As if Yeoman’s credentials weren’t enough, frequent Paul Thomas Anderson editor Dylan Tichenor was also on Barrymore's team and his cutting skills help Whip It breeze along at a wonderfully balanced pace that is especially gripping during the exciting Roller Derby sequences.

I have seen Whip It several times since its limited release in the fall of 2009 and I can’t for the life of me understand why it wasn’t a huge hit. While the film did receive mostly positive reviews, audiences mostly just stayed away and the relatively extra-free DVD and Blu-ray release hasn’t captured enough folks attention either. Whip It is one of those get behind it films and I harbor the hope it will eventually get the attention it deserves, as it is a very special work with a lot of heart, passion and style.

While Whip It was not the hit it deserved to be Drew Barrymore has thankfully not given up on directing and she is currently rumored to be planning her follow-up feature How to be Single. I highly recommend Whip It to anyone who perhaps hasn’t given it a look yet. It’s a lovely little film filled with the kind of charm and soul that has been distinctly apparent in Drew Barrymore’s career for the past thirty years. It’s the kind of film I always imagined that little girl I felt like I grew up with would make and it’s one of my favorite American films in recent memory.


Joe Valdez said...

Thanks for giving me permission to give Whip It a second look, Jeremy. I remember feeling it was likable but minor leagues, almost like a blog post put to film. Without the right marketing approach it was probably not going to make a fortune, but in the right frame of mind, there is a lot to enjoy here.

Dan O. said...

Look, Whip It does have a good message that I’m all about and it also has some decent performances to back it all up, but other than that, it’s just kinda…there. Good Review!

J.D. said...

Excellent review of this under-appreciated gem, Jeremy! I really like this film a lot and always felt that it got a raw deal by being virtually ignored by audiences. Hopefully, it has found new life on home video as there is so much to like about it.

I also really enjoyed Andrew Wilson's role as the long-frustrated coach. He is so underused in films that it was great to see him get a bit more screen-time, here.

The use of music was also fantastic, I might add.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting guys. WHIP IT is a film I have felt strongly about since I first saw it in theaters so I am happy to hear some other thoughts. Thanks again!