Barrymore packs a punch as director
FORT WORTH: "Whip It," a bouncy, female-centric portrait of a misfit teenager finding her place in the world, isn't the most original movie you'll see this year. But first-time director Drew Barrymore illustrates an edict that vastly more experienced filmmakers would be wise to follow: If you surround yourself with a stellar cast and invest your project with heart and energy, you'll earn the audience's attention.
Ellen Page, in a variation of her "Juno" persona, plays Bliss Cavendar, a hipper-than-thou teen living in a dead-end Texas town. When her prim and proper mother (Marcia Gay Harden) takes her to Austin for a shopping trip, Bliss learns about a world that she knew nothing about previously: roller derby.
Later, she sneaks back to Austin with her best friend (Alia Shawkat) and attends a match. The women she meets there — tomboyish and independent-minded just like herself — are an inspiration. Before long, she earns a place on "The Hurl Scouts" and is sneaking off regularly for practice and matches. (The film's title refers to a particularly effective move used on the roller derby rink.)
Based on the young-adult novel "Roller Girl" by Shauna Cross, "Whip It" plugs into an intriguing, real-life milieu: the roller derby leagues that sprang up in Austin early in this decade, and inspired a derby renaissance.
The most interesting aspects of the script (also by Cross) focus on the women who populate this oddball sport. We meet a single mother who goes by the stage name Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig); after elbowing, bumping, grinding and skating on the rink, she rushes home to care for her son. Barrymore plays a delightful klutz named Smashlee Simpson.
Most compelling is Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven, Bliss' chief rival, a woman in her 30s who has struggled for years to find something she was good at — and who now fiercely resists sharing her spotlight with anyone.
Less successful are the exchanges between Bliss and her mother, and the all-too-predictable plot device: Will Bliss be able to keep her derby life secret from her parents, or will everything be exposed on the night of the teen beauty pageant in which her mother has begged her to compete? Take nothing away from Harden and Page, who invest these scenes with conviction.
Harden, especially, deserves props for transforming a paper-thin conceit into a flesh-and-blood character. But there's no escaping the fact that we've seen this same conflict played out hundreds of times before.
Fortunately, the saving graces here are many: Barrymore films the roller derby scenes with evident joy (the expert editing is by Dylan Tichenor, who was nominated for an Oscar for "There Will Be Blood"). She also does a surprisingly savvy job bringing to life the weird-and-proud-of-it vibe of Austin — all the more impressive considering that most of the film was shot in Michigan.
Barrymore is a superb director of actors — and "Whip It" is so confident and sincere that it leaves you eager to see what this budding auteur will do next.