WHIP IT

Director: Drew Barrymore

Ellen Page stars in “Whip It” as Bliss, an Austin schoolgirl and occasional pageant participant who hasn’t found her true passion yet.  She’s following the wishes of her mother by making speeches about who her ideal dinner partner would be, or who her perfectly cookie-cutter hero is.  It isn’t until she stumbles onto her first roller derby event when she uncovers her competitive spirit in the rink alongside other women with similarly unorthodox lifestyles.

And that’s it, really.  “Whip It,” the directorial debut from Drew Barrymore, is clearly not trying to reinvent the wheel.  All the hallmarks of a coming-of-age story are there- dead-end town, nagging conservative mother, supportive best friend (when did Alia Shawkat get so hot?)- and in the first half hour, which culminates in Bliss’ first exposure to the sport in a hastily-edited sequence that suggests none of the cast can actually skate (later, it appears only Ms. Page and Ms. Barrymore are adept at this), the movie appears D.O.A.  Shooting on location, Ms. Barrymore gives the outdoor sequences a blank white commercial sheen, dismissive enough of open Texas streets to make “Whip it” look like an entirely set-bound affair.

Credit where credit’s due- in her first time behind the camera, Barrymore doesn’t embarrass herself.  When an actor moves behind the camera, their tendency is to ape directors they’ve already worked with.  Ms. Barrymore may have learned nothing from, say, Mr. Spielberg, and at times she apes the likes of Penny Marshall and Raja Gosnell, but she may have learned the most from “Fever Pitch” collaborators the Farrelly Brothers.  Long known as “grossout” guys, the Farrelly’s settled into a quieter rhythm as they went along, favoring intimate, affectionate relationships between characters to enrich already flimsy story conventions.

It’s Barrymore’s work with actors that makes “Whip it” an eventually enjoyable experience.  Page, so adorable with her wide eyes and  shy smile, is an ideal audience surrogate into this world, and her easygoing charm makes her sudden ascension into this new world perfectly plausible, as does her new friendships with the derby team.  “Whip It” borrows liberally from other more colorful sports films (“Slap Shot” comes to mind) with the varied supporting cast.  While few get to make only endearingly shorthanded contributions to the film (its always a pleasure to see Zoe Bell, even when her head gets explodey in “Gamer”), others are given a sharper look, particularly Kristin Wiig’s grounded lifer, a sarcastic motherly-type who casually asks if crabs are as prevalent as she had previously heard.

There’s a romantic lead for Bliss too, a snaggletooth indie rocker played by newcomer Landon Pigg, and while his scenes with Page have an endearing romantic spark (a late night pool encounter is both seductive and sweet), Bliss, and the film, aren’t enslaved by the crippling need for a third-act romantic gesture, instead valuing the female camaraderie and competitive spirit.  “Whip It” avoids conventional dramatic tension by humanizing its villains, and Bliss’ obstacles; Juliette Lewis plays an on-rink antagonist, but she seems more interested in being a villainess on a lark and not from any dislike towards other teams, while Bliss’ overprotective mother and lay about father, played by a very good Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern, take proactive steps towards appreciating their daughter when they find their collective interests incompatible.  In trusting the sport and the actors, Drew Barrymore provides a successful directing debut, and there’s no reason to not be excited about her effort.

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