Saturday, October 3, 2009
I intended to write a paragraph about this, The Invention of Lying, and Zombieland and call it a day, but sometimes the movies work so well for you, and you find that you care so much that you just can't stop writing about it. Those are good days, all things considered.
I tend to give movies a hard time when they are slaves to formula. I don’t think there’s anything explicitly wrong with this approach; everyone, in the end, has his or her own biases, why not be biased against unoriginality? That said, every now and then someone makes it work. They take tired, worn-out clichés, inject them with enough life to sustain, concentrate on creating moments and indelible characters, and it works. Whip It is such a film, a nearly perfect sports drama and coming of age comedy.
A lot was made (and a lot of jokes were made) of this being Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, but the truth is, she directed the pants off the major male competition from this year. Put her work here against the work J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, Neill Blomkamp, Michael Mann, Stephen Sommers, Sam Mendes, or Mike Judge put out this year, I’ll take Barrymore every time. She did herself a major favor collaborating with the great Robert Yeoman (best known as Wes Anderson’s cinematographer) on the camera, who I would imagine deserves credit for the wonderful lighting, and Dylan Tichenor (best known as being the guy who makes Magnolia so damn quick, among other formidable accomplishments) in the editing room, keeping the action scenes coherent. But she was the one with a often keen eye for staging, and willingness to embrace one-shots over coverage to create the group dynamic that firmly plants itself and never goes away.
She also made the great, often-neglected decision to cast the shit out of this film. Having Ellen Page in the lead is a good start, but this would not be half the film it is without Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Jimmy Fallon (never more appropriate for his role), Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, and especially, especially, especially Andrew Wilson, Alia Shawkat, and Kristen Wiig, in a performance that put away the fear Extract created that she maybe wasn’t quite the actress I thought she was. And while casting oneself in one’s own film can often seem indulgent, there is nothing indulgent about the role she gave herself. And better yet, she’s perfect for it.
What I admire most about the film, though, and Barrymore’s achievement in it, is just how unrelentingly, unapologetically feminine it is. My girlfriend, an aspiring filmmaker herself, is quick to bemoan female directors who never make it out of the “chick flick ghetto.” And while she’s right in some respects, there are also very few films this committed to a woman’s perspective, and all the embarrassing but fully felt moments that commitment creates, from the girl power chants to the road trip rock out to Shawkat suddenly screaming “that’s my best friend!” right down to the way she and Yeoman capture Page awkwardly trying out her roller skates. Anyone who really knows me knows that the first thing that will warm a film to my heart is when a filmmaker is undaunted by the prospect of laying it all out there, emotionally-speaking, and in its best moments, Whip It is that great a film.