Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directorial debut in Whip It!.
Based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross (who also scripted), Whip It marks the feature film directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. The dramedy follows teenager Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who is looking for a way out of her dead-end hometown of Bodeen, Texas. Bliss’ well-meaning but domineering mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) is convinced that her daughter’s only ticket out is to win the local Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant, but Bliss yearns for something other than her mom’s debutante dreams or working as a waitress at the Oink Joint.
Bliss discovers an alternate route to liberation and happiness when she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak off to Austin. There they attend a women’s roller derby where the teams — such as the Hurl Scouts and their arch-enemies, the Holy Rollers — inspire Bliss with their punkish attitudes and raucous, brutal antics. Convinced that she’s found her true calling in this bloodsport, Bliss lies to her parents about where she’s going and lies to the Hurl Scouts about her age so that she can attend tryouts.
Bliss joins the Hurl Scouts, adopting the moniker of “Babe Ruthless.” Her tough teammates include Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Death Proof’s Zoe Bell), and Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor). Their beleaguered coach Razor (Andrew Wilson) vainly tries to teach them the value of following his game plan so that maybe they could actually win once in awhile. The seemingly indomitable Holy Rollers are led by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), who seems to have finally met her match in Babe Ruthless. By following Razor’s playbook, Babe helps lead the Hurl Scouts to a string of underdog victories. (Jimmy Fallon appears as the roller derby’s ringside announcer.) Meanwhile, Bliss also falls for Oliver (Landon Pigg), a local singer a few years her senior. But how long can Bliss continue with her dual identity and deceptions before they threaten to destroy her relationships and tenuous hold on her future?
Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directing debut with Whip It, delivering a familiar but audience-friendly tale with enough sincerity, warmth and skill to make even the most hard-bitten cynic overlook the movie’s litany of cliches and get a kick (literally, for many of the characters) out of seeing a young girl’s coming-of-age story married with a rough and tumble sports flick. With over 25 years experience as an actor, Barrymore knows how to draw finely tuned performances out of her stellar cast, and that more than anything else is what makes her film work so well. As for Page, following her acclaimed performances as shrewd youths in Hard Candy and Juno, it was refreshing to see her portray a teenager who isn’t quite so overbearingly precocious.
Page plays Bliss as a real teenage girl, quick-witted but also vulnerable and fallible. Bliss largely treats those in her life well, but she is, as so many teens are, self-centered. And why not? Her domineering mother only wants her to relive her youthful dreams … or does she? Harden, thanks to the script, doesn’t demonize Brooke; she is, like Page’s Bliss, a real person, a stern but sympathetic parent who isn’t as wrong as her daughter would like to believe. There are several moving scenes between them, with Bliss’ coming home/kitchen scene being particularly nuanced and touching. That scene will likely be the “Oscar clip” should either Page or Harden snag a nomination.
Wiig and Lewis are also standouts, with the former showing a dramatic prowess here that suggests a range lacking in many other SNLers, past and present. It’s a performance that bodes well for her future on the big screen. As for Lewis, it doesn’t seem all that long ago when she was the young Oscar nominee playing the precocious teen; her scenes with Ellen Page have an edgy undercurrent to them, as if we’re witnessing the passing of a torch, with the elder recognizing themselves in their young counterpart even as they demand their respect. Meanwhile, Daniel Stern — where the hell has he been for the last decade? — makes a minor comeback as Bliss’ beer-chuggin’ dad. His presence calls to mind his past coming-of-age projects The Wonder Years and Breaking Away.
Just as Yoda revealed that there was another Skywalker, Drew Barrymore likewise announces the existence of another Wilson brother. Andrew Wilson is an eerie amalgam of both of his more famous brothers, mixing Owen’s stoner affability with Luke’s sensitivity and intelligence. Less effective is Landon Pigg as Bliss’ first love. While Barrymore and Cross craft the relationship with tenderness, there is a discernible lack of chemistry between Page and Pigg that renders this subplot only intermittently effective. It’s the only relationship in the movie that feels phony, but at least the final scene between them delivers. Bliss’ relationship with Pash fares better, and rings truer than most teenage friendships do in movies.
Barrymore also acquits herself well in the roller derby scenes, making them visceral and exhilarating even though they are all largely staged the same way each time. She makes you feel every elbow and punch thrown, every body check and nasty spill. These scenes put a fresh spin on the over-used (and now commercially co-opted) term “girl power.” If you can imagine Slap Shot with chicks then you get an idea of what Whip It is going for in its raucous roller derby sequences. That there is a sweet story and genuine characters one can care about when the skating stops makes Whip It one of the year’s most pleasant surprises at the movies.