Whip It ***1/2 (out of ****)

Director: Drew Barrymore
Writer: Shana Cross (adapted from her novel)
Cast: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Alia Shawkat, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Landon Pigg, Daniel Stern, Jimmy Fallon, Andrew Wilson Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, including crude dialogue and language, and drug material)
Running Time: 111 min
Release Date: 10/2/09

Whip It marks Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut with a story of a girl’s struggle with her mother to achieve her self-identity. In the opening scenes Bliss (Ellen Page) dyes her hair purple before coming on stage in the Miss Blue Bonnet pageant. This greatly embarrassed her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), who had been a contestant in her youth and hopes to advance her daughter’s social agenda in Texas society. Bliss hangs out with Pash (Alia Shawkat), her academically high-achieving best friend, who she works with at diner specializing in pork sandwiches. Pash may have even inspired the stunt at the beauty pageant.

In an attempt to make peace with her daughter, Brooke takes Bliss to Austin to go shopping. During a distraction caused by Brooke’s discovery that the store in which they are shopping for shoes also sells drug paraphernalia, Bliss picks up a flyer for the local roller derby left by some passing women on skates. Pash and Bliss conspire to attend on pretense that they are attending their school’s football game. Soon the two are having a great time enjoying the competition between Austin’s Hurl Scouts and the companion team the Holy Rollers. Now this is where the two girl’s characters depart. Pash is just out to have some forbidden fun and engage in some underage drinking while Bliss really gets the roller derby bug.

I would also like to note that this is also where the movie gets just a bit unrealistic. Bliss seems to be able to learn to skate in the blink of an eye. Takes a bus ride to Austin, lies about her age, and successfully lands the position of jammer on the Hurl Scouts team. I admit that my knowledge of roller derby is limited mostly to what I saw in the film but I think that it’s a little more challenging that that. She is also able to keep nearly a whole season of practice and play from her parents under the pretense that she is taking a SAT prep course. But let’s just forget about that or we’ll spoil the fun.

The Hurl Scouts “uniforms” are patterned after those of the girl scouts and are coached by Razor (Andrew Wilson). They keep coming in number two in every game. The team includes Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), and Rosa Sparks (Eve). With a new playbook by Razor and the addition of Babe Ruthless which becomes Bliss’s nom de guerre, the Scouts are out take the title from the Holy Rollers this year.

Babe Ruthless becomes the real star of the Scouts as they turn into a winning team but her success becomes the key to the one of the two crises of the story. The other being her romance and subsequent breakup due to infidelity of indie rocker Oliver (Landon Pigg). First, Bliss is featured as the poster girl on a flyer. Then Pash gets arrested for underage drinking during a police raid of a derby event. This blows the whole lie that Bliss has been telling her mother and father into the open. Bliss runs away from home after an angry encounter with her mother and lives with Maggie Mayhem for a time. Eventually she reconciles with her folks agreeing to be in the beauty pageant by day and Babe Ruthless by night.

Darn it! The Hurl Scout winning streak puts them into this year’s championship with the Holy Rollers on the same day as the big Blue Bonnet pageant was being held. Then Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), the jammer for the Holy Rollers, learns that she is underage being only seventeen which is too young by league rules. You can see the movie to find out what happens next.

I do think that the movie is overly harsh on Brooke. Sure, it is no doubt true that the Brooke’s obsession with the pageant is excessive. But, Brooke is also right to ask, “What is the future for Bliss in roller derby?” Bliss’s encounter with Iron Maven brings this point home forcefully. Here we have a woman in her 30’s whose obsession with roller derby is the high point in her life. How much longer can that last and as far as I know roller derby doesn’t have a good pension plan or a 401(k).

Whip It is an impressive first effort for Drew Barrymore as a director. I expect to see more effort such as this from her. The 22-year old Ellen Page has turn in another impressive piece of acting. She have been very impressive in her previous roles in Juno and Smart People. I left wondering how her childlike image will ultimately fair in adult roles in the years ahead.

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