Drew Barrymore's Whip It (260 screens) opened seven weeks ago and still hasn't broken even on its initial cost. What's going on? When I walked out of the press screening, the critics were all buzzing about how much fun they'd had. The reviews were stellar: it has an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. But somehow this critical enthusiasm just didn't translate for viewers. Something about tough chicks beating each other up during roller derby games just didn't appeal to the masses. Maybe it's because the movie is supposed to be set in Texas and was actually shot in Michigan. Maybe it's because our hero Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) was supposed to fall in love with a cute boy (Landon Pigg) who really wasn't very interesting, and you actually root for them to break up.
Maybe it's because all that Juno hype burned everyone out on Ms. Page, even though she's much better and gives a more interesting performance in Whip It. Maybe no one bought the ditsy Ms. Barrymore as an actual director, even though she rarely makes a misstep and turns a cliched coming-of-age comedy into a genuinely touching, funny and even inspirational movie. (Even the "best friend" and "mother" characters come out with three-dimensions, and get to participate in actual conversations about themselves, rather than being concerned only with Bliss.) Maybe people caught a glimpse of Jimmy Fallon in the trailer and stayed away because of him. Could it be that people have had enough of Juliette Lewis, and won't sit through anything of hers anymore, no matter how good?
As soon as I saw Whip It, I began comparing it to Adventureland, not least of which because Kristin Wiig is so funny and good in both films. Most coming-of-age films these days are made by filmmakers who grew up watching movies, and so their coming-of-age tales are based more on movie moments than anything that actually happened in real life. Both Adventureland and Whip It, despite their outrageous humor and hip soundtracks, manage to tap into something genuine about that uncertain time; you're not completely formed as a person, and you're searching for something (something that's not your parents) to help define you. Sometimes you try and fail, and those failures are the most embarrassing things, like, ever. Filmmakers brave enough to include those failures on the road to discovery are onto something.
I had been under the impression that Adventureland was a hit, but today I come to find that it earned about the same enthusiastic response, opened on about the same number of screens, played for about the same amount of time and earned about the same amount of money, as Whip It. This leads me to believe that maybe people don't really want to revisit those awkward embarrassing times of their lives. Or, perhaps closer still, the majority of the American moviegoing public are still going through those times and don't want to be reminded of them. So they go out to see A Christmas Carol or The Fourth Kind instead. No matter. Someday, when the blockbusters have been forgotten, these will be the kinds of movies with a nugget of truth to them that will be worth revisiting.