STARRING: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig
PLAYING AT: Area theaters
No one thought that perennial flower child Drew Barrymore could ever add “film director” to her résumé. When she announced she’d be taking the helm and directing “Whip It,” more than a few folks were skeptical despite her successful production company Flower Films. Actors are actors for a reason: They’re good at being told what to do and how to do it. Would Barrymore’s foray be a vanity project, too heavy on her quirky, happy-go-lucky attitude? Not at all; “Whip It!” is a delicious trifle of empowering, adorable fun.
Ellen Page’s Bliss Cavendar is a 17-year-old Texas girl from small town Bodeen, whose letter carrier mother (Marcia Gay Harde n) moonlights as a pushy pageant mom. Reluctant rebel Bliss wants something more than an innocent white dress, shallow promises and a small-town diner job. Enter roller derby girls — pierced and tattooed glamazons on wheels. Bliss joins up secretly, defying her straight-laced mom and her beer- and football-loving dad (Daniel Stern of “Home Alone”). After the initial bruising, she finds that she not only loves the derby but that she’s hell on wheels, too.
Forget all your preconceived notions of Page as Jun o; there’s no Diab lo-driven snark here, only a relatable script adapted from the novel “Derby Girl” by Shauna Cross . Bliss’s struggle between doing what she loves (beating up chicks on roller skates in Dallas) and pleasing her mother is something all young girls have dealt with, and the film’s “serious” scenes are honest rather than sappy like those in other coming-of-age films.
Harden’s character keeps the movie grounded in real life; she wants more for her daughter than she had, and pageants are the only thing she knows. Watching her grapple with Bliss’s choices is emotionally gripping.
It’s the derby scenes — and the ladies who bring them to life — that give “Whip It” its rollicking good-time feeling. Bad girl Iron Maven is the role Juliette Lewis was born to play; she’s a little bit nasty, a little bit nice and a whole lotta sassy, from bright blonde highlights to skintight leather pants.
As Bliss’s confidante Malice in Wonderland, Kristen Wiig is warm and appealing — a departure from the annoying caricature she often plays on “SNL.” Barrymore has only a small role as Smashley Simpson, who gets bashed and bruised up every time we see her. She is smart enough not to make herself the star of the show.
The savvy eye will catch some sly product placement for Barrymore’s CoverGirl gig and a soundtrack selection from Barrymore ex Fabrizio Moretti’s side gig Little Joy. Is this paid advertising or Barrymore injecting herself into her film? Also treading the ethical line is the prominent placement of Barrymore’s “Fever Pitch” costar Jimmy Fallon as derby emcee. This is, well, annoying, much like Fallon as an actor and neurotic late-night host. (Plus, he’s married to Barrymore’s producing partner.)
But “Whip It” is a debut film to be proud of. Barrymore’s years in the industry have given her a knack with actors and a sense of what makes a smart popcorn flick.
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