LOS ANGELES – Drew Barrymore has forged a persona as both an actress and producer with movies that exude a playful sense of girl power, so it only makes sense that “Whip It,” her first feature as a director, would share that same sort of vibe.
What is surprising, though, is Barrymore’s ability to find just the right tone all the time, which would be a difficult feat for any first-time filmmaker to achieve – even one who’s had the benefit of spending her entire life on movie sets.
“Whip It” is funny without trying too hard to be wacky, sweet without being overly sentimental. It has an appealing low-budget, ’70s-style kitsch. And after a recent string of female-centric films including “All About Steve” and “The Ugly Truth” that wallow in the worst kinds of stereotypes, it is such a relief to see women depicted as strong, smart, cool individuals.
It’s also a joy to see Ellen Page play a character other than the impossibly clever smart-alecks she’s become known for in movies like “Juno” and “Hard Candy.” Here, Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a misfit growing up in the nowhere town of Bodeen, Texas, and working as a waitress at the local barbecue joint.
Bliss is reluctantly following in the footsteps of her beauty-queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden), but on a visit to the big city of Austin, she sees a flier for the local roller derby league and is immediately intrigued. Not only does she secretly try out, she makes it and becomes the league’s petite, speedy star.
She joins the Hurl Scouts, whose shtick is that they dress up in Girl Scout uniforms with fishnets and heavy eyeliner to beat up on the competition. With tongue-in-cheek names like Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (stuntwoman Zoe Bell) and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself), they’re perennial cellar-dwellers but they don’t care. They’re too busy having fun. (Their coach, however, takes the sport way too seriously; he’s played hilariously by Andrew Wilson, older brother of Owen and Luke, in stringy blond hair and cut-off denim shorts.)
What’s endearing about these characters – inspired by the memoir by Shauna Cross, a Los Angeles Derby Dolls member who also wrote the script – is that these women are tough on the outside but decent to the core. They’ll shove and elbow and knock each other to the ground, but all go out for beers afterward and compare bruises.
Bliss finds a home among them and finds out what she’s made of in the process, blossoming from awkward young woman to confident athlete. Trouble is, at 17 she’s lied about her age to get in, and she’s lied to her family about where she’s been going all those nights she’s been competing.
Clearly this conflict will come to a head, and in that regard, “Whip It” is pretty predictable. Of course, the roller derby championship will take place on the same night as the all-important Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant. The Hurl Scouts will be pitted against the league’s best team, the Holy Rollers, led by Bliss’ nemesis, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). And the indie rock stud (Landon Pigg) to whom Bliss gives her heart might not be so worthy of it.
But the scenes in which Bliss and her mother confront each other about their expectations and resentments are beautifully free of histrionics: It’s just two women, speaking honestly about how they feel. Bliss also has a believably comfortable relationship with her best friend, the brainy, sarcastic Pash (Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development”).
They all serve as a welcome reminder that when boys let you down, your girls will always be there to pick you back up.
Three stars out of four.