Fox Searchlight just keeps hitting the mark. I’m struck, just now, by the fact that a good number of the movies I’ve loved most in the past few years have all come from the same company. It’s remarkable what a good eye these people have for quality scripts and talented filmmakers.
This weekend brings us their latest installment: Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page.
“Wait,” you say. “Drew Barrymore is a director now?” Apparently. And she actually does a pretty nice job. She had good material — the story is exactly the kind of off-beat, weird teenage quirk-drama that you hope will entirely replace what normally passes for teen movies these days: A girl renounces the beauty pageant circuit for the hyper-hip, rebellious, fun-drunk roller-derby. And the screenplay that delivers it is plucky, sharp and surprising.
But Barrymore doesn’t rely on all that to engage her audiences. She gets solid performances out of her rock star cast, and forms them into characters that are just as sympathetic as they need to be to make the story meaningful.
I have to admit that the film had flaws that bothered me. The biggest of which was the pacing; at a little under two hours, the film drags. The first act is too long, and there are more than a few unnecessary moments and, sometimes, entire scenes. This is a film that would have benefited from a shorter runtime.
But pacing is a tough thing to nail. This is Barrymore’s directorial debut, and it would be a little unfair to expect her to be able to pull off a perfectly timed and structured film on her first time around the block. That said, the problem remains. The film was less entertaining than it could have been, and provides a powerful illustration of how important a film’s pace really is.
To offset the flaws, however, stood Ellen Page herself. She’s brilliant. We all loved Juno (if you didn’t, well, you’re wrong) and it was largely because of this profoundly talented actor (the word “actress” has fallen out of vogue). Not only can she pick her scripts, she delivers truly wonderful performances in pretty heavy roles. The character of Bliss in Whip It is every bit as unconventional as Juno was — and Page has gotten better in the interim. Her nuances are scene-stealing.
So I hope I’ve convinced you to check this one out. At the very least, it’s not a story you’ve heard a dozen times already and, at the most, it’s a pretty remarkable sports movie with a fantastic cast.
Jared Petersen is a film correspondent for Rhombus. He loves Ellen Page just as much as the rest of us.
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