“Fox Force Five. Fox, as we’re a bunch of foxy chicks. Force, as in we’re a force to be reckoned with. Five, as in there’s one.. two.. three.. four.. five of us.” We know this line as the immortal buildup conversation between Mia Wallace and Vincent at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. When I first saw the film, this talk sank its teeth in as I vividly began imagining chicks beating the crap out of people. Watching the fantastically entertaining Whip It today brought that shred of imagination from the recesses of my memories racing back to me. I stopped caring for the clichés the film brings up because I was entirely convinced by the klutzy vigor of its heroine by the end. Turns out Juno was just a warning of the landslide of an acting display Ellen Page had in store for us.
Awkward teenager Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page) runs into a group of skater girls while buying shoes in a ‘head shop’ against her mother’s wishes. She and her best friend/Oink Joint co-worker Pash (Alia Shawkat) go to check the roller derby match out in Austin. Bliss realizes almost instantaneously that this is what she’s been looking for. Based on her novel “Derby Girl”, screenwriter Shauna Cross pitches the pitfalls of Bliss’ nutty teammates at Hurl Scouts with great pacing despite the plot machinery succumbing to occasional loose ends. Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is a shiny vehicle of teamwork and feel-good tropes but the film’s jagged edges are sharpened by the marvelously tuned-up portrayal of Bliss by Ellen Page. She is a nervous teenager on the cusp of making the discovery of a lifetime, finding something she will truly love and slicing the makeshift troubles; walking away into a bittersweet coming-of-age story. It subverts classic multiplex entertainment into a surprisingly intelligent funnel with lively humor and heart.
Starring in a small role as Bliss’ teammate Smashley Simpson, director Drew Barrymore proves that hell hath no fury like a woman fouled indeed. Rendering one more memorable performance is Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, working along as a guide to Bliss both in and outside of the derby arena. Marcia Harden fills in as the mom who pushes her 50’s idea of womanhood down Bliss’ throat and is counterbalanced by Daniel Stern as the cool and dandy father. In one peculiar scene their coach Razor (an upbeat Andrew Wilson) illustrates the effectiveness of his ‘plays’ by bribing the opposite team to enact it. Most of the characters are, in spite of being a tad stereotypical, resonant beings with warmth and a resourceful mine of comic flashes.
Ellen Page inhales her character in and lets the magic spread to every corner of the frame she’s in. Her agility is complimented by her subtle emotional touches in moments of vulnerability and conflict: the result is a knockout performance which flags up the film as a poster-girl of female driven narratives.
What a smashing film this is. Two thumbs up for Babe Ruthless.