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Copernicus wants to WHIP IT in Toronto!

I've seen some incredible stuff at the Toronto Film Festival this year, including new movies by The Coen Brothers, Pedro Almodovar, Jason Reitman, Michael Moore, and even the Palme d'Or winner, Michael Haneke's THE WHITE RIBBON. And yet, my favorite movie of the fest so far is WHIP IT, directed by Drew Barrymore in her first outing behind the lens. And judging from the frenzied crowd reaction at the world premiere in Toronto, I'm not alone. In fact, I was comparing notes with some friends after the screening, and the only film the group of us could all agree was a work of pure genius was WHIP IT. Many of the films at the fest have been innovative and important, but few can match the charm and spirit of this movie. It has a great story, a note-perfect perfect cast, and is expertly directed. The plot mixes familiar coming-of-age and sports drama storylines, yet still manages to feel fresh and original. The closest comparisons in recent years may be LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JUNO -- both were family comedies with heart by emerging talents, and each share at least one other element in common with WHIP IT, beauty pageants in the case of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and Ellen Page as the quirky teen protagonist in the case of JUNO. Both went on to both box office and award success, and WHIP IT is sure to follow the same trajectory. The story, based on a novel and screenplay by Shauna Cross, follows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a teenager pressured into entering beauty pageants by her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Bliss is a waitress at Barbeque joint in sleepy Bodeen, Texas, along with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat, aka Maeby from Arrested Development). By chance, Bliss learns of a Roller Derby match happening in nearby Austin, and convinces her friend to go on a secret trip there where she meets Rollery Derby participants with names like Smashley Simpson and Bloody Holly, played by Drew Barrymore, Kristin Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell, and Eve. Before long, Bliss finds herself in a secret life as a member the Hurl Scouts, a hapless, but fun-loving team that can barely win a game. The impressive cast is rounded out by Daniel Stern, Bliss' lovable redneck father, Jimmy Fallon as the MC of the Roller Derby matches, and Landon Pigg as an indie rocker and love interest. A good bit of the film focuses on the Roller Derby competition, which keeps it unique, and the assembled actors have a great chemistry. But most of the drama centers on the relationships between Bliss and her family, her boyfriend, and her best friend Pash. At some point she has major clashes with each, and not all end as you might expect. My favorite city, Austin, is almost another character in the film -- the allure of its indie rock and offbeat culture is ever-present, pulling Bliss out of her provincial life into new realms of self-discovery. And ground zero for film geeks, the Alamo Drafthouse, even makes a cameo. In as much as DEATH PROOF and SLACKER are love letters to Austin, Drew Barrymore has managed in some ways to upstage Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater -- WHIP IT captures the essence of Austin without being showy or overindulgent about it -- she scarcely uses dialog or establishing shots to set the scene -- you can just feel the place though the mentality of the characters. Who knew that the up and coming director to watch this year would be Drew Barrymore? Holy shit -- she's the real deal. At the premiere she mentioned that she put her heart and soul into making this movie, and drew upon every bit of experience she had. It shows. In a sport where almost no one in the audience even knows the rules, she still manages some clever camera work and editing so that you always can follow the action and know what is going on. Michael Bay could take a few pointers. And love scenes are as old as cinema, yet Barrymore manages to deliver something fresh with a rocking underwater disrobing scene that is a revelation. She has a Tarantino-like gift for transporting the viewer through the use music that not only amplifies the mood of the scene, but evokes personal memories, specific to each viewer. The soundtrack gets a bit of roller-derby spirit from The Breeders and The Ramones, and a touch of country from Dolly Parton, but topping it off are some of my favorite indie acts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Jens Lekman. Finally, the blooper-reel, freeze-frame closing credits are second only to THE HANGOVER in pure grin-inducing glee. In fact, the credits imply that there were many more scenes shot, that seemed like a blast, but were cut. My only complaint is that the cast is so perfectly offbeat, I wish I could have seen a bit more of the Derby girls' off-the-rink interactions. Ultimately though, Barrymore almost certainly made the right decision in putting the story first and only leaving in the material that furthers the plot. WHIP IT may not be as important as some of the other films I've seen so far at Toronto -- sure isn't isn't exploring the roots of Nazi Germany, how people handle death, or the problems of capitalism. But this isn't just pure popcorn either -- it has an empowering message for girls -- for many it may well be the most important movie for them. But for me it means the discovery of a new talent -- director Drew Barrymore, and I can't wait to see more. Copernicus

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