I started documenting my list of female movie directors more than two years ago, and I'm so pleased to say that I have a huge backlog of people I would like to write about, and since beginning this project Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for directing the (atrociously named, but very good) The Hurt Locker.
So, things, I suppose are looking up. I guess.
Which brings me to the career of ridiculously likable actor and first time feature director, Drew Barrymore, and her film, Whip It. Written by Los Angeles Roller Derby girl, Shauna Cross (AKA Maggie Mayhem), it's both an underdog sports story and a coming of age piece. Is it super original? No. But it's extremely enjoyable and possesses both an intelligence in its execution and a lack of cynicism that's extremely welcome in these dark movie watching days when people being mean to each other is supposed to be hilarious.
Ellen Page plays a young girl named Bliss who lives in a small town near Austin, TX and participates in pageants at her mother's insistence. After picking up a flier, Page and her BFF go to a Roller Derby tournament and she is completely entranced. One of the nicest things about the movie is watching somebody find something they love. There's an early scene in which Bliss is skating in preparation for tryouts with a look of absolute joy on her face.
And yes, the film contains most of the typical Bad News Bears styled clichés, but it's amiable and low key and often funny. And - Wow! - it really, really looks to me as if the actors do pretty much all their own skating! Barrymore's direction is skilled and doesn't get in the way of her story. During the Roller Derby scenes I always knew who everyone was and where they were in relation to the other skaters (something, for example, Christopher Nolan is completely incapable of), and it looked lovely. There's a sweet PG-13 romance between Bliss and a cute musician boy, but romance isn't the point. It's about Bliss skating, and about her relationship with her best friend and her parents.
I thought Bliss's parents (played by Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern) to be the weakest part of the film. They were painted a little too broadly and either Daniel Stern was completely miscast, or he's just a terrible actor, either way, I found his performance a little hard to watch. I did like that whatever issues Bliss was having with them, they were not painted as villains. After lying about her age and sneaking off to Austin to skate, when her parents found out they'd been lied to, they (understandably) freaked out. I liked that the script has Kristen Wiig's character point out to Bliss that she had lied, and that her parents clearly cared about her, and maybe she should cut them some slack.
Of course it ends with the big game in which the Hurl Scouts face their rivals, the Juliette Lewis (Iron Maven) led Holy Rollers, and none of the plot points are particularly surprising. But Whip It possesses in spades many of the simple pleasures one often wants from movies that seem so often in short supply. The film also had a really nice, understated sense of place. Another subtle touch, one I see very, very rarely was in the costume design. Bliss (later, Babe Ruthless), comes from a family without a great deal of money. And we see her character wear the same items of clothing, in different combinations, multiple times throughout the story. Barrymore paid a great deal of attention to detail, giving the film a really nice visual texture. There was nothing rote about the filmmaking.
Drew Barrymore has been acting in movies since she was four or five, and comes from one of the most legendary show business dynasties in American history. Whip It, while not perfect, didn't feel like a rookie effort. It was modern and self-assured and good hearted, all qualities one associates with her as an actor. It's one of those movies that I'll likely wind up seeing 600 times before I die, simply because I'll sit there and watch it every time it's on TV. It's the kind of movie that makes me unreasonably happy in an uncomplicated and unembarrassed way. Something that is actually pretty rare.