“All right, let’s show ’em what we got, guys! Get out there on the ice and let ’em know you’re there. Get that fuckin’ stick in their side. Let ’em know you’re there! Get that lumber in his teeth. Let ’em know you’re there!”
— Reggie Dunlop from Slap Shot
“Now that I’ve got school covered, I’ve only have the world outside these walls to fuck up.”
— Diana Guzman from Girlfight
“Well, put on some skates and be your own hero.”
— Maggie Mayhem from Whip It
The sonic fury of a film’s soundtrack is integral to its lasting presence. The soundtrack to Drew Barrymore‘s Whip It is a furiously beautiful compliment to this potent and rousing coming of age film. Barrymore understands the importance of a film’s soundtrack. She understands how vital the musical component is to the film. All one has to do is read her note that she wrote for the soundtrack album:
“Music is the soundtrack to our lives, and when you put music and film together, it is a powerful combination.”
“I have always been someone that had a great appreciation for the art of the mix tape.”
“This soundtrack is my mix tape for you.”
Drew Barrymore gets it. She understands the relationship between music and film. While watching the film, I would crack a smile as songs by The Breeders, Tilly And The Wall, The Ramones, The Chordettes, Dolly Parton, Peaches, and many others would blare out during the film’s many magical and cathartic moments. A good soundtrack is essentially an awesome mix tape. Drew Barrymore understands this all too well for her directorial debut.
The Whip It soundtrack is not the only great mix tape this year; the soundtracks for (500) Days Of Summer and Inglourious Basterds are incredible mix tapes as well. As far as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds goes, his choices of music from Ennio Morricone scores and other film scores is never to be messed with under any conditions. I doubt I will ever be able to listen Nick Perito’s “The Green Leaves Of Summer” without thinking of the opening credits of the Tarantino film. The other tracks on the album are just as powerful. It’s Tarantino’s magical energy to take another film’s music and make it his own. His soundtracks for all of his films are the perfect mix tapes for cinephiles — not only do we want to discover where the music comes from, we want to discover the actual films. Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer may be the finest mix tape since Zach Braff’s Garden State and every Cameron Crowe film, especially the soundtracks to Almost Famous and Singles. In the case of Garden State, it was the discovery of bands I did not know existed like The Shins and Thievery Corporation that made the music as well as the film such a revelation. A really good soundtrack makes you want to discover other music by the composer or the other works by the bands featured on the soundtrack. (500) Days of Summer does this many times over. Music is integral to the film’s story. I rediscovered The Smiths whereas in the past I had only focused on Morrissey’s solo career since college. I discovered the beauty of Regina Spektor thanks to the soundtrack. The soundtrack’s greatest gift may be my belated discovery of the band She and Him. Let me say that hearing Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” during the opening credits of Zombieland is pure ecstasy on my part. Music is essential to a film and Drew Barrymore gets this perfect on her first film. Great soundtracks take on a life of their long after the closing credits. Whip It is certainly one of those kinds of soundtracks. A great mix tape makes you hungry for more.
I was wrong about 2009 and the films it has produced. The year had been littered with so many high profile disappointments that I did not know where it was going. We had been spoiled in the past by an abundance of great films, but this year there were a lot of disappointments. Yet, one thing that has stood out about this year is the rebirth of the coming of age film. The genre has been reborn. Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is one of the finest and most honest films about growing up in many years. Not only his film, but Sam Mendes’ Away We Go and Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer revel in the same kind of brutal honesty and intensity. These two films are as honest as Adventureland in their depiction of life. It must be said, that Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is at its heart a coming of age story. It shares many of the attributes of the films I have just mentioned, but also goes further back than just these recent films. The film joins a proud tradition of great films such as Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot, Gurinder Chadra’s Bend It Like Beckham and most importantly Karyn Kusama’s 2000 masterpiece, Girlfight. When Jennifer’s Body was released, everyone was making a fuss about screenwriter, Diablo Cody and one of the film’s stars, Megan Fox, but I hardly heard a word about the film’s director, Karyn Kusama. While Jennifer’s Body is wildly uneven, I attribute its few strengths to Kusama’s direction. Do not get me wrong, I have nothing against Cody, who deserves her success, but a script is only as good as the director who can bring it to life. Like Whip It, it is a coming of age story, but the real star of the show is Amanda Seyfried’s Needy. It is her story and it is Seyfried’s performance that is the real revelation. More to the point, Kusama’s Girlfight paved the way for Whip It. Yet Barrymore does not stop there. The film finds it sports inspiration in such films as Slap Shot, The Bad New Bears (1976), Breaking Away and Kansas City Bomber. She wears her old school influences on her sleeve, but it never intrudes on the storytelling process. All of these films made an impact on her, especially, the older films.
Ellen Page’s transformation from the insecure Bliss Cavender into the spitfire roller girl Valkyrie, Babe Ruthless; it is one of the Whip It’s major pleasures. The film has many delightful moments, but this is the story of Bliss Cavender trying to find her place in the world. Bliss does not have much going for her in Bodeen, Texas. She goes through a series of beauty pageants that her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), wants her to participate in because she thinks it will instill positive attributes into Bliss’ character. Bliss is not too crazy about the pageants. In the film’s opening, she dyes her hair blue and let us just say the reaction is negative from the judges. Bliss does not know what she wants in life, but she knows that she is not pageant material. Granted she is in high school, but she is fighting on a lot of different fronts. Her mother lives vicariously through her and her younger sister. By putting them in the pageants, she is helping them get ahead. In its own way, Barrymore is making fun of the pageants just as the film Little Miss Sunshine did in 2006. While in a head shop shopping for boots in Austin, Bliss encounters a trio of roller derby girls dropping off fliers for a big roller derby match. Bliss is enthralled as the girls enter and leave on their skates. She takes a flier home with her. Her best friend, Pash, played by the delightful Alia Shawkat, sees the flier. They decide to go to the big show. Pash certainly reminded me of Olivia Thirlby’s Leah in Juno. This is not a bad thing at all. I find it so refreshing that Ellen Page is not spouting out wisdom beyond her years. Bliss is not the smartest person in the room. She is not wiser than the adults in the film. This year that award goes to Tom Hansen’s younger sister, Rachel, played by Chloe Mertz in (500) Days Of Summer. While I still like Juno a lot and refuse to participate in bashing the film, I have to say Ellen Page is delightfully more impressive in this film.
The roller derby rink is a transformative experience for Bliss. She is immediately hooked into this roller girl subculture as she watches the Austin Hurl Scouts take out their aggressions on the track. The Hurl Scouts and all of the Roller Derby teams are the female answer to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. These girls are the Inglourious Bitches. It is not that Bliss comes from a bad family, far from it, but she wants to find her own family where she feels that she belongs. To be one of the Hurl Scouts is to be one of her most important goals in the film. Bliss wants it so badly that she is willing to lie about her age to be able to try out for the team. It is not the first lie she tells in the film. She lies to her parents that she is going to a high school game when she and Pash venture out to Austin. Once she becomes one of the Hurl Scouts, she lies even more to both parents. She tells them that she is taking an SAT class. Her mother and father, Earl, played by Daniel Stern are impressed with this new set of priorities that Bliss has established. Pash and their manager friend at the diner where they both work are willing to make sacrifices so Bliss can live out her newfound dream. It is not only Whip It and Adventureland that deal with finding your place in a new group of people this year, but that is also at the heart of Zombieland as well. After the zombie plague, it is Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus who bonds with three strangers who become his new family through the most dire of circumstances. It is funny how similar Zombieland and Adventureland are in certain aspects. The parents in Adventureland are not much better than the zombies in Zombieland. What is it with Eisenberg and amusement parks this year?
If Paul Newman’s Reggie “Reg” Dunlop from Slap Shot and Raquel Welch’s K.C. Carr from Kansas City Bomber ever mated, their offspring would have most definitely been the members of the Hurl Scouts. The Hurl Scouts are a motley crew of awesome girl power! Kristen Wiig is the maternal Maggie Mayhem. Zoe Bell (Death Proof) is Bloody Holly. Eve is Rosa Sparks and Drew Barrymore is Smashley Simpson. I have to give Barrymore a lot of credit for giving herself a supporting part and not the starring role. It is a class act that reminded me of what the late Adrienne Shelly did for herself in Waitress. Both actresses gave themselves the comic relief characters in their films. It is incredibly commendable of Barrymore and it only reinforces her comic credentials. Yet there is more, Juliette Lewis plays the league’s uber warrior, Iron Maven. She is the Hurl Scouts arch rival and she is incredibly jealous of Bliss’s sudden rise to stardom in the game. It is the most delicious part that Lewis has had since Old School. It looked like she had the time of her life making this film. How ironic is it that Mallory Knox and Mickey Knox had films that came out the same weekend. Woody Harrelson’s Zombieland opened this weekend as well, and both the ex-Natural Born Killers are kicking major ass in both films. The casting of Lewis is very important to the film and adds an extra layer to the film. Lewis, like Barrymore before her, had success at a very young age. Lewis and Barrymore are the role models for Ellen Page. Page hit acting gold with Hard Candy and Juno at a very young age. It is very fitting that a survivor like Drew Barrymore is behind the camera. She serves as one of Bliss’ big sisters in the film. Lewis is like the evil older sister. Yet, her hazing of Bliss throughout the film is a mirror to the real world of acting and celebrity. Iron Maven is there to teach her some very true life lessons. When Bliss transforms herself into Babe Ruthless, it is a true sight to witness. What she lacks in muscular strength, she makes up with speed. She is a regular Chuck Yeager out there in the skating rink. The skating sequences are exhilarating as they remind me of such films as the original Rollerball, Breaking Away, Slap Shot and Kansas City Bomber. Speaking of tough girls, Emma Stone’s zombie killing Wichita from Zombieland, would not be out of place in this film.
While the skating sequences are highly energetic and cathartic, the film is equally exciting in its quieter moments. Bliss has two mothers in the film. Of course there is her real mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, but here is also her surrogate mother, Kristen Wiig’s Maggie Mayhem. I do not know what Lorne Michaels is doing over there at Saturday Night Live these days, but he has produced a fine array of actresses. Maya Rudolph was a revelation in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. Molly Shannon delivered the goods in Mike White’s Year Of The Dog. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are unstoppable comic titans. Wiig is having an incredible run in films. This year she has displayed her comic sensibilities in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland and Mike Judge’s Extract. Her role as Maggie Mayhem will recall her character Paulette in Adventureland. Paulette and her husband, Bill Hader’s Bobby, served as the surrogate parents to most of the characters in that film. Jesse Eisenberg’s James and Kristen Stewart’s Em’s parents were not the best role models. In fact, both characters found more acceptance in their Adventureland world. Not just in this film, but in any Judd Apatow directed or produced film, adulthood is more myth than reality. Yet, Maggie Mayhem is very much the adult in Whip It. While she takes out her aggression in the rink, she is incredibly wise and maternal off the rink. But this is not to say that Bliss’ parents are not wise. They are very loving and caring. Brooke wants Bliss to have the life she never had. She was in the beauty pageants at her age too. Brooke and her husband, Stern’s Earl both work blue collar jobs. They want their children to have full access to the American Dream. Barrymore never looks down on this fact. In her coming of age story, parents have a real voice, adults matter in this film. This is not Peanuts run amok. The relationship between mothers and daughters is the heart and soul of the film. Whip It also reminded of the relationship between Katie Holmes’ April Burn’s and her mother, Patricia Clarkson’s Joy Burns in Peter Hedges’ Pieces Of April.
There are other performances that stand out as well. Jimmy Fallon is very funny as the announcer, ‘Hot Tub’ Johnny Rocket. Andrew Wilson is incredibly good as their long suffering coach, Razor. As a Wes Anderson regular, Wilson is always reliable for a great performance.
Still when all is said and done, this is Ellen Page’s film. She soars as Bliss/Babe. While I like Hard Candy and Juno a lot, this is truly a wonderful role for Page. When she enters the rink and speeds pass everyone else, it is a major catharsis for her as well as the audience. There is kinetic joy in watching her find her place in this brand new world. Even in her relationship with musician, Landon Pigg’s Oliver, she feels liberated. Yes the script by Shauna Cross, based on her novel, Derby Girl, has a lot of the touchstones of many sports and coming of age films, but guess what, it works and it works very well. Sometimes, genre clichés represent a wonderful advantage in the right hands. In Drew Barrymore’s hands, this film turns out much better than it should. Barrymore is a survivor– a survivor of the Barrymore Hollywood dynasty. We have watched her grow since Steven Spielberg’s E.T.— and she did get directing advice from the man himself. I can say this about Barrymore’s directorial debut; she paid attention while she was on the set. Her work in the romantic comedies such as The Wedding Singer, Ever After and Never Been Kissed pay off big dividends with the romantic aspects of the film. Even her work as a bad girl in films such as Guncrazy, Poison Ivy and Bad Girls help inform the character sketches of all the roller derby girls. There is even a little bit of both Charlie’s Angels films as well. It is under Drew Barrymore’s watchful eye that another young actress on the rise excels in the role. Ellen Page is channeling a less tough Diana Guzman as played Michelle Rodriguez in Kusama’s Girlfight. Whip It is a wonderful companion to the other great coming age this year; Adventureland. While Whip It is certainly more upbeat than Adventureland, both films make the viewer feel less alone. We have all been there before. Whip It certainly relishes the recent roller derby revivals. The film is a great advertisement for the sport. There is no doubt about that while watching the film. The film’s greatest strength is its honesty and heart. Whip It is a celebration of living.