Maybe it was the phalanx of real-life roller derby girls high-fiving everyone at the entrance to the Ryerson Theatre, or perhaps the irrepressibly perky Drew Barrymore just touches a particular sweet spot in the hearts and minds of the Toronto Film Festival's unapologetically positivist, always-happy-to-see-a-movie-star public audience. Whatever the case: Barrymore could probably have sacrificed a small animal on the Ryerson stage Sunday night without significantly dulling the effusive fervor of the crowd assembled to see the divine Miss B's directorial debut, Whip It. And this was before she even got around to introducing a whopping 13 members of the film's cast and crew (each heralded as, like, the best thing ever), and before, of course, even a frame of the film had been shown. Welcome to Toronto.
As it happens, Whip It is nearly as pleasant and perky as Barrymore herself -- a gentle female empowerment fable that goes down easy, leaves a smile on your face, and almost as soon disappears from memory. This much I recall: Juno star Ellen Page appears as another misfit teen, a combat-boot-clad square peg in the very round hole of Bodeen, Texas, where football (for boys) and beauty pageants (for girls) are akin to religion. On a family trip to that decadent, anything-goes metropolis known as Austin, Page's Bliss Cavendar catches sight of a flyer promoting a distaff roller derby exhibition, and before long...well, don't let me spoil the surprise.
Whip It is, to put it mildly, a bit slapdash. Roller derby is
far from the most cinematic of sports, and after a while, the movie's
many scenes of roller girls wreaking havoc in the rink begin to feel
like watching your clothes go round in a laundromat dryer. And the rest
of the movie, which consists of many a pop-music montage and one
extended food fight, may owe more to Barrymore's editor, Dylan Tichenor
(also thanked prominently from the stage) than we will ever know. Let's
put it this way: While I am inclined to agree with French director
Arnaud Desplechin when he says, "All good films are for anyone," I'm fairly certain I am far from Whip It's
ideal spectator. Case in point: Leaving the Toronto screening, I
overhear two ebullient teen girls trying to decide whether or not the
movie qualifies as one of the "all-time top five Drew Barrymore
movies," whereas I'd have a hard time naming five Drew Barrymore movies
if Michael Caine held a gun to my head (more on that in a moment).
The Whip It
screenplay, by Shauna Cross (based on her semi-autobiographical novel),
is chock full of standard-issue coming-of-age tropes and sports-movie
cliches -- parents who don't understand, first love, first heartbreak,
and the "big game" in which Bliss and her Hurl Scout teammates face off
against longtime champions the High Rollers. But every now and then,
the movie transcends your expectations, especially in a handful of
scenes featuring the wonderful Juliette Lewis, who brings a touching
sense of missed opportunities and hardscrabble grit to the role of Iron
Maven, star skater of the High Rollers. Barrymore (who also co-stars as
a Hurl Scout nicknamed Smashley Simpson) is a survivor herself, of
course, having successfully navigated the turbulent waters that consign
many a former child star to a fate worse than roller-derby elimination.
She's also been around long enough to grow fatigued by Hollywood's
limited roles for women in front of and behind the camera -- something Whip It
aims, in its small way, to correct. In the end, even I found myself
getting caught up in the movie's infectious, girl-power spirit, much as
I wished there was more here genuinely worth getting excited about.
From girl power to geezer power: My first full day in Toronto also brought me face to face with Harry Brown,
a repellant little vigilante movie from England starring Michael Caine
as a recently widowed pensioner who takes up arms against the amoral
thugs who are turning his public housing "estate" into a 24-hour war
zone. "Gran Torino without the car" is how first-time feature director Daniel Barber's film has been optimistically described in some of the pre-festival press; Gran Torino without a brain is more like it. Probably the year's most explicitly violent movie after Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay
(a serious film about violence whose absence in the Toronto lineup is
made all the more conspicuous by the presence of dreck like this), Harry Brown doesn't
waste any time engaging with the political, social or economic causes
for the decay of Britain's public housing. Instead, it plugs ahead with
scene after scene of Caine and his snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38
splattering the vital organs of his hooligan neighbors all over the
council house pavement -- some of it in such imaginative ways that the
makers of the Saw franchise may wish to take note.
Whereas the most resonant vigilante movies -- William Lustig's Vigilante, the original Death Wish, and even Neil Jordan's flawed but fascinating The Brave One
-- serve as a kind of agitprop, challenging our moral rectitude by
putting us in the place of those victimized by violence and corruption,
Harry Brown offers little more than a succession of chic nihilst
poses, from its washed-out, underlit widescreen cinematography to the
monotone line readings of Caine and the rest of a good, albeit wasted
cast (including Emily Mortimer as the detective on the trail of Caine's
carnage, and Liam Cunningham -- the priest from Hunger -- as a
local barkeep). Barber (working from a screenplay by Gary Young) has
anything but a light touch, setting one encounter between Caine and a
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tweaked-out, tattooed gun dealer in a den of iniquity worthy of a black
metal music video, and building to a climactic riot that rivals
Michael Bay for sheer overwrought bombast. "This could be the worst
low-budget movie of Caine's career," a colleague remarked as Harry Brown's end credits finally began to roll. To which I say: why equivocate?