A high school-age barbecue waitress in a small Texas town discovers the empowering goodness of roller derby in Whip It, the directing debut of Drew Barrymore which showcases another great performance from Ellen Page.
The movie works as both a fun portrayal of a crazy sport and a coming-of-age story, thanks to a very game Page, who does a lot of her own skating and has no problem playing 17 (even though she's actually 22).
Bliss Cavendar (Page) isn't the most popular girl at her high school, and her misery is compounded by her strict mother (Marcia Gay Harden) insisting that she participate in nauseating beauty pageants. Her dad (Daniel Stern), while a lovable sort, is obsessed with football. With no real plan for the future, and a general fear about opposing her mom, Bliss just goes with the flow to avoid acrimony.
During a shopping trip in Austin, Bliss is handed a flier for an upcoming roller-derby event. She lies to her parents about going to a football game, attends a derby and is instantly hooked. She pulls her Barbie skates out of an old trunk, practices a bit and blows away the competition at tryouts. Before long, she is Babe Ruthless, super jammer for the Hurl Scouts.
Barrymore has assembled a great cast, including herself as Whole Foods-checkout-girl-turned-derby-monster Smashley Simpson. The list of stars handles both the humor and athleticism admirably. I especially liked Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, the most motherly person in the group. Wiig gets a chance to really act, compared to the pure comic roles she's usually handed. She's funny here, but her character shows a lot of heart, too.
Other supporting players include Juliette Lewis as a rival skater, a part that amounts to the film's villain. She causes some trouble, but she's not a cartoon villain in any way, and Lewis mixes in the right amount of menace and vulnerability. Andrew Wilson gets perhaps his best role yet as Razor, coach of the Hurl Scouts. (Actually, his turn as Beef Supreme in Idiocracy was a bit cooler.)
As for the skate scenes, some moments look staged and silly, but Barrymore, her cast and her editor make the action passably realistic, for the most part. It helps that you can usually see the actresses are onscreen rather than stunt skaters. It gives the movie an authentic feel, even if some of the moves the characters inflict on one another aren't exactly regulation (at least according to a derby-skating friend of mine).
Page, who passed on the chance to be in Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell to play Bliss, made a wise decision. It's good to see her do another riff on high school life after Juno, and now it's time for her to take on some more adult roles. I'm sure she is up to that challenge.
That roller-derby-playing friend is constantly talking about aches and pains and bruises after bouts, and having to practice all the time. Before seeing Whip It, I always told her that she was insane to take part in the sport. This movie does a good job of showing why derby is so appealing.
It's also a good film about family dynamics, friendship and finding your way in life. Barrymore shows she can direct a movie with style and substance, and I'm looking forward to her future efforts behind the camera. As for Page, she's one of my favorite actresses right now, and Whip It is a big reason for that.