Ellen Page returns to her comfort zone in the offbeat indie comedy-drama, Whip It, a frolicking and funny film about roller derby, family, and self-discovery. Directed by Drew Barrymore, who also co-stars in the picture, Whip It is unevenly paced for the first quarter, but thankfully the film grows less leaden as the actors sink their teeth deeper into the roles, some more sizable than others. So by the time the credits start rolling, that little quibble becomes almost immaterial.
Page, who landed an Oscar nod for her remarkable turn in Juno, is Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year-old high school misfit living in Bodeen, a small Texas town, with her devoted mother (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden), father (Daniel Stern) and younger sister (Eulala Scheel). Bliss has grown tired of the confines of her small town, where she also works part-time at a diner with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat). Bliss believes there’s way more to life. So when she learns of an all-female roller derby tournament, she jumps at the opportunity to experience something new. It doesn’t matter that the tournament is taking place all the way in Austin, several miles from home, at a spot called The Warehouse.
There she encounters wild tomboy chicks in short shorts and fishnet tights beating the crap out of each other on roller skates before a screaming, blood-thirsty crowd. With names like Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (rapper Eve), Bloody Holly, and Eva Destruction, you know this is no sport for the fainthearted girl next door. In fact, roller derby is a grueling sport that calls for sturdiness, speed, and skill on skates. At least from my vantage point, beneath this veneer lurks a desultory lesbian undercurrent.
Desperate to leave a world of Stepford-style pageants, mind-numbing tradition, and archaic viewpoints on class and beauty behind, Bliss tries out for the Hurl Scouts, coached by a hothead named Razor (Andrew Wilson). She impressively makes the team, adopts the name Babe Ruthless and quickly becomes one of the best in the league. But to get to the top, she has to get past Iron Maven (convincingly played by Juliette Lewis), the cocky star player of their main rivals, the High Rollers. Another plot point involves Bliss falling for a cute musician, Oliver (Landon Pigg), who she meets at The Warehouse.
Pulling on her Juno chops, Page is wonderful as Bliss, bringing a mix of gracefulness and brawn to the role. She is the sweet schoolgirl, the tough athletic competitor, and the caring daughter who really wants to make her mother and father happy and proud.
You can tell that Drew Barrymore is a sucker for a quirky indie that makes you both laugh and reflect on your own life. With Shauna Cross’ appealing novel and screenplay as source material, the director brings that same understanding of life, coupled with her enthusiasm, to her work behind the camera.
Minor, forgivable flaws aside, Whip It is charming and amusing, a satisfying and enjoyable look at small-town ideology, individuality, and the search of passion and pleasure.