- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
rew Barrymore’s journey from self-destructive child actor to mellowed-out movie star hasn’t come without its embarrassments, but now that her days of crazy antics are behind her, she’s actually matured into quite the entertainer. Her work in the HBO movie, “Grey Gardens,” proved her talents in front of the camera, and her directorial debut, “Whip It,” aims to do the same behind it as well. It's a pretty difficult movie to screw up, but although "Whip It" is little more than your garden variety coming-of-age tale set to the beat of an underdog sports drama, Barrymore manages to make the film both funny and sweet without really trying. She’s hardly the next great American director, but for an industry so lacking in movies made for women by women, it's just nice to see her make the effort.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a social outcast growing up in the small town of Bodeen, Texas where she works at the local BBQ joint with her only friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), when she’s not being forced to participate in beauty pageants by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). During a chance trip to Austin, Bliss sees a flier for the local roller derby league, and after sneaking out for the night to catch an exhibition match, she decides to try out. Much to everyone’s surprise, she’s a natural, speeding around the track even faster than league all-star Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). Joining the misfit team, the Hurl Scouts, Bliss laces up alongside fellow teammates Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), and Rosa Sparks (Eve), and emerges as her new alter ego, Babe Ruthless. But when her parents learn about her secret life, Bliss must fight for the right to do what makes her happy, even if that means disappointing them in the process.
Based on the book “Derby Girl” by Shaun Cross, “Whip It” is one of those movies that actually benefits from having the original author pen the screenplay. Though Cross’ previous film experience is limited solely to writing the obscure 2007 comedy, “Taking 5,” she has a real knack for writing dialogue and balancing the various subplots. Because the film revolves entirely around Bliss and her many relationships, however, it also requires a great actress capable of shouldering that responsibility. Thankfully, Ellen Page has already proven with “Juno” and “Hard Candy” that she can carry a movie on her own, and though many may consider the role too similar to the feminists she’s played in the past, there aren't many young actresses that can do it as good as she can.
Plus, while Page may be the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the cast helps create the realistic world she inhabits. Marcia Gay Harden shows a slightly softer side than we’re used to seeing as Bliss’ authoritative mother, while all the derby girls get their own moment to shine – especially Kristen Wiig as the team’s den mother and Juliette Lewis as the trashy (what else?) leader of the reigning champion Holy Rollers. In fact, the only weak link of the group is singer/songwriter Landon Pigg in his acting debut, and although the subplot involving his relationship with Bliss is integral to the whole girl power theme of the film, it should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Not all the male characters are meaningless. Andrew Wilson (older brother of Owen and Luke) delivers a hilarious turn as the team's coach, and Jimmy Fallon is clearly having fun in the plum role of the roller derby announcer. But despite the number of great character actors in the cast, the film’s standout performance comes from Daniel Stern, who is a joy to watch as Bliss’ more sympathetic father. It doesn’t change the fact that Barrymore has created a film almost exclusively for women, but just because they're more likely to relate to “Whip It” doesn’t mean that men won’t enjoy it as well.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
It may not have exactly lit up the box office, but the single-disc release of “Whip It” deserves far better than this. The only bonus material included is a handful of mediocre deleted scenes and a Blu-ray exclusive interview with author Shauna Cross. An audio commentary with director Drew Barrymore would have been a nice addition, or at the very least, some kind of production featurette on the film’s costume design.