Rated PG-13, 111 min. Directed by Drew Barrymore. Starring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Andrew Wilson, Alia Shawkat, Eve, Zoe Bell, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Drew Barrymore.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 2, 2009
Barrymore’s directing debut, Whip It, is a lot of fun, even though the film may be better known in these parts as “the one that got away.” Based on a screenplay about women’s Roller Derby by former Austinite Shauna Cross, Whip It was filmed in the extremely tax-incentive-friendly state of Michigan, instead of the Central Texas area in which the story is set and which has been so instrumental in the revival of women’s roller-skating. Be that as it may, Ann Arbor is not a bad stand-in for Austin, especially when supplemented with a few iconic exterior shots filmed here in the capital city. Teeming with girl-power spirit, Barrymore’s film exudes an all-encompassing benevolence rather than strident one-upmanship. These girls just want to have fun, even though their pleasure involves getting banged up and bruised to the roar of hot metal thunder beneath their feet. As the central character, Bliss Cavendar, Page demonstrates that her breakout performance in Juno was no fluke and that she has what it takes to carry a film. Bliss’ story about slipping away from her sleepy Texas town and her beauty-pageant-mad mother (Harden) for the attraction of the rink contains more details than are sometimes necessary, but the effort helps make her journey believable. A subplot regarding a love interest is pure window dressing, though. The heart of the movie belongs to the Austin roller league, whose members play without regard to the outcome: They return for the thrill and satisfaction of the moment – and one another’s company. Barrymore’s casting choices are intrinsic to the success of the film. Lewis, under her rink name, Iron Maven, hasn’t had this meaty a role in maybe 15 years, while Wilson as the team’s shaggy male coach is a hoot to watch. Harden and Stern, as Bliss’ parents, create fleshed-out characters instead of lazy depictions of the paper tigers that grown-ups usually are in teens’ stories. Also smart on Barrymore’s part was snagging Robert D. Yoeman (Rushmore) for her director of photography and Dylan Tichenor (Magnolia) as her editor, both of whom help lend the film a crisp look that focuses on the contact part of the sport instead of the overall game. Barrymore is generous toward her actors and keeps her own endearing performance as klutzy Smashley Simpson in the background. Whip It wants to assure parents that they should not fear their daughters when the girls turn their interest in becoming Miss Texas into being Maggie Mayhem (Wiig’s rink name). And furthermore, Whip It reminds us that although new family allegiances will be formed once a girl leaves home, that doesn’t necessarily mean she has to leave the old family behind. That last one may carry more weight if you’re a Barrymore. (See "Tough Enough," Oct. 2, for more.)