Rebecca Miller‘s been building her career on the backs of fucked-up women since her 2002 debut Personal Velocity, a trio of stories—shot in the early age of quality digital—starring Kyra Sedgwick, Fairuza Balk and Parker Posey; and 2005’s PEI-shot The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring Camilla Belle in her breakthrough role. In The Private Lives of Pippa Lee she brings our attention to Robin Wright Penn, whose 25-year career comprises less than 40 credits and none of them comes close to this one.
Pippa was born last to a Catholic family, and her manic-depressive mother (Maria Bello, terrific as always) uses her as a dumping ground for her life’s dead ends and broken dreams. After a drug-fueled confrontation, Pippa moves out and away from her family life, sleeping and drugging her way through New York City until she meets a much older book editor (Alan Arkin). The film dodges expertly between past and present (Blake Lively brings a sensitive confidence to Pippa’s teen years) as current Pippa finds herself in a retirement community not far from her childhood home and perhaps falling down the same rabbit hole that caused her mother so much pain.
Miller has assembled an incredible support cast—and it’s a testament to the material when Julianne Moore will show up for five minutes as a boho lesbian photographer—that includes Shirley Knight, Winona Ryder (taking a page from the Streep playbook and doing more adventurous things as she gets older), Mike Binder, Monica Belluci and a shockingly good Keanu Reeves, whose Chris is an obvious fuck-up companion to Pippa’s buried former self.
Miller’s shooter on her last two films was the talented Ellen Kuras; here she's got Declan Quinn, the man behind the ace camerawork that helped to make Rachel Getting Married such an emotional success. Together Miller, who also wrote, and Wright Penn take a character traditionally floating in a fog of cliche—the mid-life crisis! The younger wife! The crazy bitch!—and make her wholly likable and compelling. I could’ve watched it for another hour.
Drew Barrymore, an actor I have little time for, makes her directorial debut with Whip It! (the poster even says “The directorial debut of Drew Barrymore” before it says Ellen Page), a coming-of-age story set in the right-now trend of ladies roller derby. Bliss Cavendar (Page) is a meek high school student being ferried to beauty pageants by her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden, oddly channeling her FBI agent from Law & Order: SVU). But she’s got a rebellious streak, and when she smacks eyes on some girls from a local roller derby team, the spirit of the derby takes over her body. Because of her size she’s a speed demon and a great addition to the team, unbeknownst to her parents of course.
The cast is uniformly great—The Unstoppable Kristen Wiig TM, Eve, Juliette Lewis, Ari Gaynor and Barrymore all play skaters, and Alia “marry me!” Shawkat is Bliss’ awesome best friend—and the roller derby is thrillingly filmed, with many actors doing their own skating. It would’ve been nice if the unavoidable romance had been jettisoned (a good place to cut 20 minutes from the movie’s over long 111-minute running time), and a bunch of people walked out during a league-wide food fight, but Barrymore’s trademark sunny stamp is all over the movie. Teens are probably going to flip for it.
And here’s a story to make you feel bad about your life: I’m off to see a movie that won three awards at Cannes in May. Its title? I KIlled My Mother. Its director? A 20-year-old from Quebec. ZUT ALORS.