It's not every day you see a film crew blocking access to your apartment building’s parking lot, but it happened to me last year in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Through generous tax policies, Michigan has attracted several film studios to shoot in Michigan -- in particular, Southeast Michigan -- and among one of the films being shot was Drew Barrymore's directorial debut movie, Whip It. But the first time I heard of the movie was a couple weeks before, when I ran into some of its cast at an Ypsi bar called The Elbow Room.
It was MoFo Karaoke at The Elbow, a Thursday night ritual that brings quite a diverse crew out to drink cheap bear and sing songs by Morrissey and Mission of Burma and everyone in between. When I showed up, Juliette Lewis and Eve were belting out some unmemorable number, while Juno herself (Ellen Page) stood transfixed at the foot of the stage. How neat. Hollywood invading a town that, at least since WWII, has been treated as the more dangerous, less economically viable sister of Ann Arbor, Midwest college town par excellence. But judging from the general goodwill they showed towards the community, it seemed that Whip It was a ton of fun to make. The only question was how well Ms. Barrymore would handle her first feature.
Happily, Whip It is an enjoyable film that doesn’t try too hard. It’s is a simple coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old girl from a small town outside of Austin, Texas. Disaffected by the pageant circuit that her mother forces her into, Bliss (Ellen Page) finds sanctuary among a ragtag group of roller derby girls. Thankfully, the admittedly foreseeable conflicts that ensue between Bliss and her mother (played to pitch-perfection by Marcia Gay Harden) are sincere and avoid sensationalism, displaying a remarkable level of maturity for a teen movie.
The performances in Whip It are all above board — Kristin Wiig turns in an especially deft performance as “Maggie Mayhem,” a secondary character that contributes a great deal to the general joviality of the piece, and even Jimmy Fallon does a convincing job as roller derby announcer Johnny Rocket. While Page has apparently become the victim of type-casting -- Bliss has much more in common with Juno than Haley Stark (Page’s breakout role in Hard Candy -- it certainly doesn't speak to her abilities as an actress, as Page's performance captures the character's essence wonderfully.
With the aid of Robert Yeoman’s excellent cinematography (many will remember him as the director of photography for most of Wes Anderson’s films), Barrymore has crafted a singular visual aesthetic for her first turn as a director. The shots are neither boring nor pretentious, save for a misguided sequence that takes place in a high school gymnasium pool. Peppered throughout the film are unforced references to Daniel Johnston’s famous Hi, How Are You album art and other small touches that add to the film's incredible attention to detail. And while, yes, the soundtrack offers many of the predictable indie tunes you'd expect from a mildly counter-cultural film, the inclusion of a Department of Eagles song was perfectly fitting for a subtly pivotal scene.
Whip It is not a spectacular movie. It does not reinvent its genre, and it does not attempt to reach beyond its grasp. But this is what makes the movie enjoyable. By avoiding the pitfall of making her first feature an overly quirky mess, Barrymore has pulled off a very decent debut.