— by ALEXA MILAN —
After having a successful acting career for almost her entire life, Drew Barrymore takes a stab at directing with “Whip It.” Though her direction is nothing groundbreaking, Barrymore does have talent behind the camera and tells a compelling coming of age story.
Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a high school misfit living in Bodeen, Texas, who participates in beauty pageants to placate her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden). She spends her time listening to indie music, being tormented by her popular peers and working at the Oink Joint, a local barbecue diner. Bliss isn’t enthusiastic about much in her life until she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) attend a roller derby match in Austin.
Enthralled by the roller derby lifestyle and the tough skaters of the Hurl Scouts, Bliss decides to try out for the team, despite the fact that she’s 17 and the members must be 21 or older. Shy Bliss’ speed makes her a star player, but she has to learn to toughen up if she wants to last in the league. She adopts the nickname Babe Ruthless and comes into her own with the help of her new friends Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell).
Bliss also faces her first love, indie musician Oliver (Landon Pigg), and her first major rival, Iron Maven of the Holy Rollers (Juliette Lewis).
“Whip It” definitely contains some girl power film and sports film cliches, but the roller derby backdrop makes it feel edgy and fresh. Though the story is predictable in some ways, it surprised me in others. It’s funny and heartfelt, and the core female cast has great chemistry. The film has strong messages about finding yourself and about female empowerment, but none of it feels too forced or overbearing.
I can see why Barrymore, who I think in many of her roles has embodied tough-chick female empowerment, was drawn to this film as her first directing project. Though nothing about her directing style is revolutionary, Barrymore’s clear understanding of the characters and story translates effectively onscreen. She also does a great job staging the physically demanding roller derby sequences, which I imagine were difficult to film.
“Whip It” also features great performances, particularly from Page. From her gritty performance in “Hard Candy” to her sharp-tongued wit in “Juno” to her more soft-spoken role as Bliss, Page has shown the makings of lasting talent. I think she has a great deal of potential, and having an Oscar nomination under her belt at age 22 doesn’t hurt either.
Barrymore is also funny in front of the camera as the aggressive Smashley, and Shawkat complements Page nicely as Pash. Though her trademark dry humor is still present, Wiig is refreshingly laid back as Maggie and serves as a mentor and mother figure to Bliss. Andrew Wilson also gives a memorable performance as Razor, the Hurl Scouts’ coach, and the always fierce Harden is excellent as Bliss’ mother.
So while “Whip It” may not be the most innovative girl power flick out there, it’s far more intelligent than most other current teen fare and it’s a guaranteed good time at the movies.
Follow Alexa Milan on Twitter at http://twitter.com/alexamilan.