(by Dustin Putman
The plaudit-worthy directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, "Whip It" bursts onto the scene with an exuberance of filmmaking and a keen understanding of authentic human relationships. The film, lovingly written by Shauna Cross (based on her novel), does a lot of things at once, and does them well. A coming-of-age story, a small-town slice-of-life, a mother-daughter drama, a sports movie more involving, vivid, and competently shot than most—the picture rarely steps wrong as it covers a lot of potentially worn-down bases and story conventions. Article continues below
At the center of her own personal maelstrom of self-discovery is 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a high school senior living in the hole-in-the-wall Texas town of Bodeen. Working part-time at the Oink Joint ("Home of the Squealer!") alongside best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) while making her mother happy by diligently entering one beauty pageant after the next, Bliss can't wait to figure out what lies ahead for her future. While shopping in the nearby civilization of Austin, Bliss comes upon flyers advertising the TXRD (Texas Roller Derby) and opts to check it out. What she finds is an unorthodox, full-contact, all-female sport that she instantly falls in love with, inspiring her to step out of her shell and toward the freedom of adulthood. She lies about her age to join the Hurl Scouts team—player Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) tells her you have to be 21 to join, to which she claims to be 22—and thus begins a double life, shuffling off to the big city a couple times per week under the guise of having joined an SAT study group. Bliss knows her mail-carrier mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) would not approve, or understand, and yet it's the first thing in her life she has ever really been passionate about.
Bliss, a.k.a. Babe Ruthless, is at the center of "Whip It," but it is director Drew Barrymore who is the heart of it, giving her impressive ensemble of actors their own moments in the spotlight without ever forgetting her true focus. Affectionately developed and sincerely captured, Bliss is soulfully brought to life by Ellen Page without a speck of the self-deprecation and sarcasm that marked her Oscar-nominated turn in 2007's "Juno." As winning as Bliss is, the same could be said of all the other memorable characters circling her life. Indeed, a movie could be made about any one of them and it would still make for fascinating subject matter.
In watching a film that follows the basic blueprint of other sports flicks, the viewer may assume they know where things are headed. For one, roller derby is a fresh blast to watch—it's certainly no ordinary sport—and two, "Whip It" averts expectations most of the time with the level of maturity and authenticity brought to the material. Thus, formula plot points rear their ugly head—e.g. lead player Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) of opposing team Holy Rollers learns about Bliss' actual age and threatens to let the cat out of the bag; Pash feels snubbed when Bliss starts hanging out with her new set of friends; the championship game is scheduled for the very same night as the Blue Bonnet Pageant that Bliss has already committed to—but they work themselves out in surprising ways that lend depth to would-be stereotypes. Nothing in the world director Drew Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have created is easy or neat, and their apropos understanding of how real life goes and how familial relationships are always growing and evolving is more than welcome.
In lesser hands, Brooke Cavendar could have been portrayed as a shrew, a mother unable to accept any side of an argument but her own. As penned, however, she is infinitely more complex, desperate to be to Bliss what her own mother never was to her. In doing so, though, she has forgotten to ask what Bliss wants. As they work out their differences, or at least try to, what evolves on the screen is one of the more tough yet tender-hearted mother-daughter relationships that has shown up onscreen in recent memory. Marcia Gay Harden (2007's "The Mist") is humane, stubborn and just about heartbreaking as mother Brooke, while Daniel Stern (1998's "Very Bad Things") gets his juiciest role in years as father Earl.
The rest of the cast is top-notch, the only regret being that they can't double their work alongside the movie's running time. Kristen Wiig (2009's "Extract") is wonderful in a straight role, that of helpful, caring confidante Maggie Mayhem, whose home life isn't exactly as Bliss expects. Drew Barrymore (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You") embraces her Smashley Simpson, the wild teammate who flies by the seat of her pants. Juliette Lewis (2007's "Catch and Release") is a dynamite adversary as Iron Maven, made up of more, too, than Bliss expects from what she sees on the indoor track. Lewis hasn't had a great part equal to this one since 2002's "Hysterical Blindness." As Pash, Alia Shawkat (2006's "Deck the Halls") shares a chemistry with Ellen Page perfect for two characters who are supposed to be lifelong best friends. Their dance to Dolly Parton's "Jolene" at the Oink Joint, replacing the song title with "Bodeen," is beyond cute, while a later scene where Pash dishes out her frustrations on Bliss stings as only words can coming from a person you trust with your life.
"Whip It" displays an eclectic soundtrack (The Ramones, Peaches, .38 Special and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are featured, among many others) and has been shot by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman (2008's "Yes Man") with a moody resourcefulness. The city of Austin is accurately represented, while an underwater love scene between Bliss and new musician boyfriend Oliver (Landon Pigg) scored to Jens Lekman's "Your Arms Around Me" is resplendent. The romance between Bliss and Oliver, it should be said, serves its minimal purpose in the bigger scheme of things and concludes with a message of female-empowerment that puts "Twilight" to shame. Will "Whip It" change the world? No. Does it soft-pedal over the occasional issue (such as the legitimacy of making a career out of roller derby)? Admittedly, yes, but it's a small price to pay. Never less than sheer fun, "Whip It" enlivens Bliss' touching journey and makes roller derby seem so much cooler than boring old football or basketball. Drew Barrymore, proving that a life spent in front of the camera has been all the training she needs to step behind it, would have to agree.