Barrymore Manages to 'Whip It' Good

Directed by: Drew Barrymore, Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: A-

The deck seems stacked against Drew Barrymore with Whip It, her directorial debut. It's a film about roller derby -- scratch that, a coming-of-age comedy revolving around roller derby -- that features pulse-pounding music, girls clothes-lining each other, and Jimmy Fallon as the house announcer for the "hell on wheels". Moreover, Ellen Page is double (triple?)-dipping on the rebellious, high-school teenage girl archetype, certainly occurring with Juno still fresh on our minds. A first-time directing effort in these surroundings would be considered a success if it merely didn't grate on the nerves after about fifteen minutes. Instead, Barrymore and writer/author Shauna Cross have done something unexpected; they've managed to duct-tape everything together that's remotely satisfying about the premise, and in the process sketch out fluid, eat-'em-up splendid characters inside a quirky yet convincing growth narrative -- all while having a hell of a lot of fun hurling us around a dusty roller-skating rink.

Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a somewhat awkward teenager who works at a local barbecue joint in Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas when she's not in school. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) wants her to compete in beauty / etiquette pageants and follow in her footsteps, something her younger sister is doing, but she'd rather dye her hair blue just for the hell of it and hang out with her equally anti-click friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat). However, this has left Bliss without much in the way of social definition, and it's having an effect on her. One day, as she drags her family into an "alternative" (alternative to what?) store to buy a pair of replacement shoes, a group of vibrant, hair-dyed, untamed-looking girls come wheeling into the shop on roller-skates to drop off a stack of flyers -- flyers for a roller derby event in Austin. With Bliss all but picking her jaw up from the floor at their arrival, it's clear that she's more than interested to take the drive to see these kindred spirits in action.

Once we're in the "warehouse", their arena, it's hard for us not to get a bit slack-jawed ourselves at the sport's excitement. Though roller derby itself generates plenty of exhilaration through all the blood, crashes, and estrogen-powered verve, the electricity in Whip It largely swings on Barrymore's competence in the director's chair. She's borrowed cinematographer Robert Yeoman from Wes Anderson for a while, and her choice in picking his eye for visuals turns out to be one of the film's largest assets. Yeoman shoots the battles between the Hurl Scouts, the movie's focal team, and their assorted opponents with a lot of control, following their trails around the track with speed and strength of character. Since each of the derby girls are hefty personalities -- with the likes of Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) sticking out almost like all-star wrestlers -- this grounded photography really brings out their personalities, while also holding onto thrills around every bend of the track and every punch, kick, and elbow that follows.

Boy, does Whip It have personality. It starts with Bliss, navigated well by Ellen Page, as she elects to try out to be a Hurl Scout, Holy Roller, or whichever team she'd be on, directly following her first experience in the "warehouse". Those who have seen Page outside of Juno (and her brief stints in the X-Men flicks as Kitty Pryde) know that she's a little powerhouse even without Diablo Cody's dialogue bouncing her along, most prevalent in the morbidly comedic Hard Candy. Here, she crafts a wily, authentic personality out of the teenager girl, a persona that grows and strengthens as she grasps her "Babe Ruthless" derby callsign; it's likely due to the fact that we've got two women both writing and directing the film who, obviously, experienced what it's like to be in her shoes, and that experience carries over into building a transitional girl who's free of clichés and overplayed emotions. Her conversations with Pash, the talks with her stuffy mother and her loose-gripped, understanding father (Daniel Stern), and the happy-go-lucky empowerment banter with her teammates all emphasize her sense of socially-lost discomfort to a genuine degree. And, when Bliss starts to engage in the expected, mechanical relationship with an equally alternative boy, she plays off of her co-star Landon Pigg with just the right amount of slowly-developing, fidgety panache.

Whip It paints broad comedic strokes with our awareness of both Bliss' character and the rowdy nature of the Hurl Scouts, thrashing everyone around in a subdued slapstick manner that keeps absurdity in check. You're going to see a lot of sport movie staples scattered throughout -- the rookie training sequence, the last-minute buzzer-beater of a game, and a meteoric rise to stardom -- yet they're all encapsulated in a vibrant, pulsating package that's so damned entertaining and grin-worthy that it simply doesn't matter. All of the derby girls are ruthlessly delightful, from Barrymore herself bringing the brain-dead Smashley Simpson to life to Juliette Lewis as Bliss' "villainous" rival, Iron Maven; Kristen Wiig, however, stands out by delivering her best performance to date as Maggie Mayhem, controlling her quirkiness from Adventureland and Knocked Up into something of a sisterly figure. It also doesn't hurt that Barrymore strategically drops potent song choices throughout their violent thrashings, which power the laps around the "warehouse" along with tons of energy. She's got her ducks in a row to a surprising degree here, far more than expected, and it creates something multifaceted, heartfelt and original within a familiar structure.

Aside from its comedic mash-up constructed from the likes of The Karate Kid and The Bad News Bears, Whip It also had a serious side -- not too serious, mind you, but a well-postured figurative point behind Bliss' growth as a teenager. She's battling with her mother about her lack of interest in the Blue Bonnet social-circle, country-club like beauty pageant, something her mother wishes she'd get into simply so she can grasp her youthful beauty while she still can. That's part of the neat balance in Shauna Cross' story, because it compares the "carpe diem" nature behind both the dainty beauty pageants and the bang-up roller derby matches with a believable amount of integrity. Sure, we take sides with the derby girls since it's exciting and what Bliss feels driven to do, but the film's context also allows the merits behind what Bliss' mother wants for her, and for her memories of her youth, to rise from the woodwork.

It's not, however, any kind of "chick flick", or on a gals-only power drive because of it. Sure, Whip It carries a certain level of female empowerment behind its momentum, pointed out by the traditionalist austerity fixed on Bliss and her "alternative", domineering friends -- both her roller derby teammates and her friend Pash for hanging out with her -- but it's really aiming for a continual roll of laugh-infused, visceral bliss that keeps femininity in check. It guns to make us grin and bob our head to the groove, while giving us a bit of semi-suspense behind watching the decidedly petite Ellen Page slip in and out of formations on the track. Oh, and by the way, you are given a bit of a lesson on the way that the roller derby point system works, but you don't have to wholly comprehend it all to get the point behind the flick. After all, we've got an announcer rattling off the points for us so that we're able to just enjoy all the rawness Barrymore's slapped together for us, and it all boils into one of the most enjoyably memorable films of the year.


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