Stuck in a dead-end job in a no-pulse Texas town, 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar ([movieperson id=”323117″]Ellen Page[/movieperson]) is miserable. Then, on a trip to Austin to buy clothes for the dreadful junior-miss pageants her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) keeps forcing her to enter, Bliss spots an ad for an upcoming all-girl roller-derby match — the Hurl Scouts versus the High Rollers. Sneaking away on the designated night, she catches the match, falls in love with the action, returns home to dig out her old pink Barbie skates, sneaks back to Austin, lies about her age, auditions for the Hurl Scouts and wins a place on the team. Soon her life, for the first time, begins to get interesting.
In [movie id=”379060″]”Whip It,”[/movie] [movieperson id=”3815″]Drew Barrymore[/movieperson], directing her first film, demonstrates solid movie-construction instincts (but then she’s been working in films for nearly 30 years) and a knack for drawing distinctive character performances from a sizeable cast of sharp comic actors. The picture is based on a book by actual derby girl Shauna Cross, who also wrote the script, and it’s at its best in the arena sequences, with the girls tearing around the oval track at speeds approaching 30 miles an hour, and in showing us their knockabout camaraderie — the ways in which they function as a hard-charging, fun-loving family.
The Hurl Scouts are girl-power punks with rink names like Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Bloody Holly (stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (rapper Eve), Jaba the Slut (Eli Bleiler) and Maggie Mayhem (Cross’ own derby name, here bestowed on Kristen Wiig, who gets to be more than just funny for a change). They’re all into the sport for the kicks, of course, and for self-actualization: At one point High Rollers leader Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) tells Bliss (who’s adopted the name Babe Ruthless) that she got into roller derby at the advanced age of 31 ” ’cause it took me that long to find one thing I was good at.”
The movie is more than just a female-empowerment exercise, though. Wiig’s character can’t hang with the girls after games because she has a small child to care for, and we can feel the growing conflict this is creating for her. And since Lewis’ snarly skate vet is clearly approaching the limits of her derby career, we wonder what’ll become of Bliss, with little more than waitressing skills to fall back on, when she too decides to devote her life to the sport.
The picture’s a little long, and weighed down by some clichéd plot elements, among them Bliss’ predictable conflict with her disapproving mom, and the last-minute encouragement she gets from her good-hearted goof of a father (Daniel Stern, who really should work more often). There’s a silly food fight, too, which comes out of nowhere; and as you might expect, there’s also a cute guy — a local musician named Oliver (singer Landon Pigg, very appealing). He wins Bliss’s affections, and then a first kiss in an unusual underwater gym-pool scene that’s been lusciously photographed by Robert D. Yeoman (“The Darjeeling Limited”). A carnal interlude follows (so far off-camera I’m not even sure it happened), after which Oliver takes off with his band for a month-long tour. In his absence, Bliss sees a photo, taken on the road, of Oliver with another girl. When she confronts him about this on his return, he insists that nothing transpired — which allows Page to deliver one of the movie’s finest lines: “I don’t wanna be this girl,” she says, “the one who stands here and listens to what didn’t happen.”
It might be said that the role of Bliss — who evolves from a girl into a young woman over the course of the movie — is a step forward for Page from the lovable ragamuffin she played in “Juno.” I’m not sure that’s true — Juno MacGuff was a unique comic creation. And in any case, Page already took several steps forward as the know-it-all wiseacre in last year’s mysteriously underappreciated “Smart People.” But she gains from the vivid support offered here by the other girls on the team, and by Andrew Wilson as their long-suffering coach and Jimmy Fallon as the whacked-out rink announcer, “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket (“Did my peyote just kick in?”).
“Whip It” is a small-scale movie that feels like it was a lot of fun to make. It has a rambunctious charm, a considerable amount of heart and a steady supply of laughs. Most of all, though, it leaves you looking forward to whatever Barrymore — who has a nice, loose comic touch — decides to direct next. This is a good little start.
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