Hollywood may eschew the notion, but guess what? Ladies need to let loose, too. In Whip It, Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with a teenage girl’s coming-of-age story that blends the bad-ass culture of roller derby with the tenderness of a comedic family drama. Barrymore also appears as a derby skater named Smashley Simpson, but her sensibility is more apparent in the film’s overall feel: uneven in its pacing and occasionally arm’s length from an emotional coup — but at times perfect, with scenes that are both hilarious and poignant.
Juno sensation Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year-old slogging through her days in a Podunk Texas town outside of Austin. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) pushes her into beauty pageants, which (as we learn in the first scene) isn’t really Bliss’s scene at all. So when Bliss discovers the Hurl Scouts — Austin’s resident roller derby team — and finds smashing success (literally) as one of the new star skaters, her life begins to change, but not without the painful stumbles that are par for the course on and off the skate track.
In recent interviews, Barrymore has mentioned that the rocky terrain of mother-daughter relationships is a key theme for her, and it’s those scenes in Whip It that are some of the most effective. The film’s developmental apex takes place in the Cavendar kitchen with Bliss and her mother employing dialogue that’s unconventional by mainstream, cinematic standards — and the scene rings truer for it. That familiar ache of loss, irrational anger and regret is almost palpable over the course of a couple of minutes, especially when Bliss’s lovable, football-coach father (Daniel Stern) gets into the act.
At its heart, though, Whip It is light and funny, drawing the biggest comedic thunder from the Hurl Scouts’ violent antics (including a fabulous food fight), as well as from scenes with Bliss and her best friend Pash (played by the fantastic, believable Alia Shawkat). Some seasoned, sassy actresses laced up to join the Scouts and their opponents, the Holy Rollers, including Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, Eve as Rosa Sparks ad Juliette Lewis as Bliss’ smoldering arch-nemesis, Iron Maven. Jimmy Fallon unleashes some of his best work in years as the derby announcer, “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket, while the under-utilized Andrew Wilson is the film’s official scene-stealer as Razor, the Scouts’ long-haired coach with a surprising competitive streak.
While Whip It has a mix of moments that could’ve been cut and moments of unadulterated satisfaction, it’s an exhilarating, fun package as a whole. Plus, at a time when Joe Francis is a household name, it’s refreshing to finally see women going wild on their own terms — and loving every second. Not only does Whip It inspire the pursuit of identity, fun and triumph, but it’s also a reminder that no matter where you left your childhood roller skates, the thrills don’t have to end with adulthood.