When it comes to mainstream Hollywood entertainment Drew Barrymore is a favorite of a lot of people. Many call her cute as a button but I have never been convinced of that, either. When I first read she was going to be directing a film about a teen roller derby star I had hopes that what she delivered would be at least mildly entertaining. Ms. Barrymore manages to deliver in spades.
From the opening title sequence to the film’s obvious mise en scène I knew something special was about to unfold. Whether it be the camaraderie between the cast to musical cues to just the downright likability of the entire cast, everything things to have gone inexplicably right for Barrymore’s sophomore effort.
Drew Barrymore has lots of funny friends and thankfully they all get a chance in the spotlight in what could have wound up as another run-of-the-mill vanity project. Instead of another Gigli or Glitter we get a girl-powered crowd pleaser about a sport that I am sure most moviegoers will have no idea even existed. Here in Salt Lake City we even have our own Derby Girls.
Shauna Cross is still a newcomer to the world of screenwriting, with Whip It being her first big theatrical release. This is also the first feature film Barrymore has directed, and the two have managed to combine forces to bring us a great little story about a girl who finds something she finally loves in life even if it means some literal and figurative bumps and bruises along the way. Cross also wrote the novel the film is based on and the film intrigues me enough to possibly read the book or at least add her first screenwriting attempt, Taking 5, to my Netflix queue.
With a cast consisting of Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, Andrew Wilson (the lesser-known brother of Luke and Owen), and Barrymore herself, one would think that it would be a fight to the finish for any of them to get their fair share of screen time. Thanks to Cross’s script and Barrymore’s breezy direction everyone gets their chance to shine.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, her first screen appearance since last year's Smart People and her first starring role since Juno. Bliss is a plucky indie 17-year-old residing in Bodeen, Texas who spends her time working at the Oink Joint with best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development) and participating against her will in local beauty pageants for her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). When her mother drags Bliss out shopping for shoes at what turns out to be a head shop, Bliss runs into some local derby girls dropping off flyers for tryouts. She becomes instantly fascinated and lies to her parents about attending an out of town high school football game with Pash to see exactly what these derby girls are all about.
Immediately smitten with the sport, she lies to the league about her age in order to attend tryouts, where she makes the team and becomes an instant success in the eyes of Razor (Andrew Wilson), coach for the Hurl Scouts. After a semi-raid on the warehouse they hold the competitions, Pash is arrested for under-age drinking, leading her parents to find out that she has been participating in this new sport and not attending an SAT class as they were told.
Her mother is insistent that she compete in one final pageant, which happens to be the same night as the derby finals and now she must either give in or surrender to her parents who are divided between their little girl having fun in a moment of life or doing as she’s told. We also must not leave out the obligatory love story that is playful and endearing rather than forced and annoying.
The cast is obviously having a tremendous amount of fun and Barrymore shows far more competency behind the camera than expected. She even keeps her own character to a minimum, giving time for characterization where you would least expect it. Jimmy Fallon manages to be funny again while Kristen Wiig pulls out a true performance in what is the closest she’s had to a starring role in her own right. Zoe Bell doesn’t have quite as much to do and was obviously cast more for her being a stunt woman who can act which makes the director’s job easier as she showed us in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. And while Ellen Page luckily doesn’t simply ape her Juno persona, a scene involving Bliss and Pash giving Bliss’s younger sister Shania (Eulala Scheel) a makeover is not only hilarious but rings true without being corny.
If you’re looking for a great time this weekend look no further. A great script, direction with just the right amount of truth, and a cast having the time of their lives all adds up to a stirring crowd pleaser.