Great rolls of girl power

Drew Barrymore has grown up on screen, from cute moppet (E.T.) and teen femme fatale (Poison Ivy) to Charlie’s Angel and rom-com queen. Now she’s taken on a new role as director, with her debut Whip it!, based on Shauna Cross’s novel Derby Girl, a fun and flawed flick that offers a peek into the mad world of Texan roller derby.

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a not-so-sweet 16-year-old living in Bodeen, a tiny “armpit of a town”, where she’s sleepwalking through high school and waiting tables at The Oink Joint with best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat). Her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) insists on entering her into endless beauty pageants, wishing her offbeat daughter would conform to the Southern debutante ideal.

When Bliss discovers roller derby – basically “hot girls in rollerskates and fishnets beating the crap out of each other” – she is immediately enchanted. To her surprise, she earns a spot on the Hurl Scouts, an underdog squad.

So commences Bliss’ attempts to balance her ordinary life back home and her secret one as Babe Ruthless, the Hurl Scouts’ rising star – the film’s title refers to her ability to “whip” (race) around the track.

Sadly, the roller derby theme does not maximize its campy possibilities. The pun-tastic names (Princess Slayer, Fight Attendants) and bad-girl costuming are cute, but the derby matches do not convey movement and thrills, which makes it hard to see why Bliss is so taken with the kooky sport.

The film works better as a coming of age comedy, which the reliably excellent Page anchors with aplomb, rescuing several contrived plot turns with her earnest charm. It’s fun to see her as a very un-Juno character – all lank hair and meekly muttered comebacks (“Shoes are a gateway drug”) – that realistically evolves into a more confident young woman. Barrymore, through Page, evokes the emotional warfare teen girls must endure, from mother-daughter tension to first heartbreak.

Page’s supporting girl power is hit and miss. Shawkat (Arrested Development) is both maternal and fiery in the best friend role, reinforcing the sense that the two really need to get out of Bodeen. Marcia Gay Harden remains sympathetic despite her sexist, old-fashioned aspirations, and she and Page really feel like mother and daughter.

Juliette Lewis is an enjoyable mean girl, as Bliss’ rival Iron Maven, and keeps the character from becoming too one-dimensional. As Maggie Mayhem, the captain of the Hurl Scouts, Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig delivers a standout performance, proving she is capable of far more than her usual oddball roles – although there’s a few of her trademark deadpan hilarious monologues too.

The other derby girls unfortunately don’t get much screen time, which undermines our understanding of Bliss’ derby obsession. While Zoe Bell (Deathproof) and Ari Graynor (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), respectively as Bloody Holly and Eva Destruction, look good on skates and competently deliver their one-liners, Barrymore’s Smashley Simpson is too cartoony – maybe she didn’t have enough distance to direct herself effectively.

Although Whip it! is definitely a girl buddy film, the few boys satisfactorily increase the romance and comedy. Andrew Wilson (brother of Owen and Luke) is amusingly intense and slightly sleazy as Razor, the Hurl Scouts’ hot-panted coach. Jimmy Fallon, Barrymore’s former co-star in The Perfect Catch and Wiig’s fellow SNL alum, complements Wilson as the lusty, motor-mouth roller derby announcer, “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket – a scene where the two men dance together is a laugh out loud moment.

Oliver (Landon Pigg), Bliss’ musician love interest, is teen girl dreamy in that malnourished wannabe British rock star way, although at times their romance seems to belong to a different movie.

Pigg is also a contributor to the film’s retro-tastic soundtrack, which includes The Ramones, Dolly Parton and Peaches, amping up the punky feminine attitude that defines contemporary roller derby.

While Whip it! doesn’t live up to its hype, the memorable performances and light comedy keep it watchable. The end result is a chick flick with attitude and cult classic potential – much like many of Barrymore’s vehicles.

Whip it! (2009, Flower Films, 111 minutes)
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Starring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern

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