Starring Ellen Page, Daniel Stern, Marcia Gay Harden and Juliette Lewis. Directed by Drew Barrymore. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material). 111 minutes.
Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with this quirky but relatively safe coming of age comedy. Based on Shauna Cross’s novel – with screenplay by Cross – WHIP IT tells the story of Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who finds her inner strength when she joins a roller derby team. Yes, roller derby, a film genre previously consisting of “Kansas City Bomber” (1972) with Raquel Welch.
Bliss is a high school senior who has been competing in teenage beauty pageants at the behest of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), herself a former beauty queen. Since mom now delivers mail, it doesn’t seem like the tiara was a key to fame and fortune. Bliss is dragged by a friend to a roller derby match and learns that the hapless Hurl Scouts are holding tryouts. Bliss goes, even though the last pair of skates she owned had Barbie on them. Not telling them she’s a minor, she somehow manages to make the team.
The plot is, in some ways, like “The Bad News Bears” in that we’re less concerned whether these losers and misfits win the big championship game than that they show heart. Bliss, who is small and fast on skates, shows them the way, and learns something about herself in the process. This is a definitely a “feel good” movie.
As a director, Barrymore shows some heart herself. Taking a supporting role as “Smashley Simpson,” one of the goofy players, she insists that we respect these women and their sport. Bliss discovers that the reason one of her teammates doesn’t attend post-game parties is that she’s a single mom who has to get home to her little boy. Juliette Lewis, as Iron Maven, the lead player of the reigning team, is set up as the heavy, but turns out to be struggling like the rest of them, seeing her relatively advanced age of 36 as marking the end of her career in the near future.
Likewise, the relationship of Bliss with her parents is explored and, again, there are no bad guys. Dad (Daniel Stern) is a lovable lug who finds himself coming around to the notion of his daughter as a roller derby star. Mom is a different matter, angry and bitterly disappointed at her daughter’s choices. Their relationship is the most complex one of the film, as they both struggle to learn to see the world in new ways. As with Lewis’s hard-bitten skater, Harden’s role is one that could have been played as the villain of the piece. Barrymore resists that, making us – and Bliss – respect her as a hard-working parent who truly wants what she thinks is best for her daughter.
In spite of this somewhat rich subtext, “Whip It” is very much a light comedy, with Bliss learning what’s really important in life, and how people can earn – or betray – your trust. Should Barrymore, who has been acting since she was a child, decide to pursue a career as a director, this film is no more a landmark that Ron Howard’s first film, “Grand Theft Auto” (1977). However, it does make us wonder where she’ll roll from here.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.