by Larry Richman, published on September 25, 2009|
My 30th & final film here at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival was the World Premiere of Whip It, the impressive directorial debut of Drew Barrymore (who also stars). What a great way to close out my experience here in lovely Canada.
Barrymore works with a Shauna Cross script (based on her own novel Derby Girl) and an all-star cast featuring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Kristen Wiig, Landon Pigg, Jimmy Fallon, Eve, and Juliette Lewis.
Page is Bliss Cavendar, whose mother (Harden) sees her daughter in gowns and crowns as she continues the family tradition of winning beauty pageant trophies. But Bliss' chance encounter with a group of roller skating girls plants other ideas in her head. Austin, Texas happens to host a roller derby league, it's not too far away, and Bliss finally sees a way out of her town (and gown). This sets up a family confrontation that is the stuff of classic coming-of-age stories.
The film starts out slow then whips into action, its brilliant ensemble cast hitting its stride and functioning like a winning roller derby team (without the bruises). Then just when you think Whip It is headed into sports rom-com cliché territory, surprising twists keep it original and refreshing. But despite the multitude of talented actors, Page clearly carries the film on her diminutive shoulders and is easily in control of the material.
Production values are naturally first rate, with a vivid color palette and in-your-face costumes that are occasionally (and appropriately) over the top. Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman and editor Dylan Tichenor work perfectly in sync by reflecting both the snail's pace of Bliss' home life vs. the secret one that flies on wheels around the Austin track. Camerawork places the viewer directly into the action. Despite having been filmed primarily in Michigan (due to favorable tax credits) the Austin scenes are prominent, placing its landmarks in a warm, affectionate light. On a personal note, I smiled at the shot of Page and would-be rock star boyfriend Oliver (real life musician Landon Pigg) in front of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, primary venue of the SXSW Film Festival. One benefit of a big budget is the ability to purchase music rights, and the result is a killer soundtrack that will have the audience singing along. Be sure to stay for the second of the two closing credits songs, the best ever cover of one of the greatest rock 'n roll love songs of all time, The Association's Never My Love.
Fox Searchlight scores again with Ellen Page, just like they did at TIFF 07 with Juno. Unlike that (at the time) dark horse, this is no little indie. This is classic Hollywood comedy. Whip It is another festival crowd pleaser to add to this year's must-see list.