Movies: Whip it! * * *
You've got to admire Drew Barrymore. A star at six and a drug addict by the time she was 12, she has overcome all sorts of impediments to forge a career for herself as an A-list star. Not the most versatile of actors, nor the most spectacularly beautiful, she has shown both intelligence and tenacity in handling her career, increasingly producing her own films as well as starring in them.
And she adds director to her accomplishments in Whip It!, a touching, comic, coming-of-age story adapted by Shauna Cross from her own novel.
Eternal teenager Ellen Page (she's now 23) plays Bliss Cavendar, a 16-year-old from a small Texan town who's beginning to buckle under the smothering love of her well-meaning but interfering mother. Brooke Cavendar (Marcia Gay Harden) is a determined and ballsy postwoman who only wants the best for her daughter: unfortunately that entails beauty pageants, which Bliss detests but her mother thinks are character-forming.
In response to the regular doses of pre-pageant prettying-up that she's forced to endure, Bliss has begun making tentative gestures of rebellion with the help of her friend Pash (Alia Shawkat). But dying her hair pink begins to seem a little tame when she stumbles on the wild world of roller derby.
Bliss is on a shopping trip in the city of Austin when she sees a flyer for an upcoming roller derby meet: the posters advertising the event boast fearsome-looking girls with tattoos and alarming dress sense, and Bliss is intrigued. On the pretence of going to a college football match, she and Pash sneak off to experience the strange underground sport for themselves.
Roller derby is a mainly female American contact sport played in skates in makeshift velodromes by competing teams and involving regular and random substitutions. It's robust stuff and a kind of toned down version of the game they played in Rollerball, and young Bliss is instantly entranced. And when she goes behind the scenes to tell local team the 'Hurl Scouts' that they are her new heroes, one of their stars, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) tells Bliss to "put some skates on -- be your own hero".
And so, knowing full well her mother would be horrified, Bliss begins a double life, sneaking off to join the Hurl Scouts for their robust training sessions. At first, she finds the going tough: she's not strong and gets knocked around. But over time she discovers a real gift for the sport, having the kind of speed and balance that allows her to sneak through the pack of skaters and win what is ultimately a pretty violent race.
The Hurl Scouts have been doing badly, and coach 'Razor' (Andrew Wilson) has all but given up on them. But with Bliss's help, they begin to get their act together and make an improbable championship run. However, her new life is threatened when her mother finds out what she has been up to.
There is absolutely nothing earth-shattering about the intentions or effect of Whip It! and, in fact, Shauna Cross's script descends regularly and cheerfully to well-tried movie clichés. When Bliss acquires a rock and roll-singing boyfriend, you just know he's going to turn out to be a bad egg; and while her mother is initially presented as a humourless harradin, her subsequent humanisation is hardly shocking.
For all that, though, Whip It! has a heartwarming charm and breezy humour that makes it more than watchable, and this is mainly down to the efforts of the fine cast. Ellen Page is less of a smart-arse than she was in Juno, and proves more than capable to expand her range to encompass wholesome smalltown girl. The roller derby girls are a satisfyingly salty bunch, and include Juliette Lewis as Bliss's arch rival, and Barrymore herself as a cheerful semi-psychotic.
Daniel Stern is good as Bliss's mild-mannered, beer-sipping father, but it's Marcia Gay Harden who's the rock at the heart of this picture, giving a nuanced performance that carries her character through a significant and believable arc.