Drew Barrymore, the Hollywood starlet once infamous for churning out forgettable romantic comedies and flashing David Letterman, has finally crafted a new identity, exhibiting an unexpected knack for quality filmmaking in her directorial debut, “Whip It.”
At Quality 16 and Showcase
Using a platoon of accomplished stars, colorful characters and a solid indie-rock soundtrack, Barrymore overcomes a fairly banal script and forges a fantastic film.
Ellen Page (“Juno”), suffering from an unfortunate bout of typecasting, stars as Bliss Cavendar, a denizen of Generic Small Town, TX. Her quirky, rebellious nature is suppressed by the cultural limitations of her hometown and her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden, “The Mist”), who is obsessed with entering Bliss into beauty pageants. Bliss eventually finds her calling, however, in the extreme underground sport of women’s roller derby, regularly sneaking off to Austin where she tries out for, and eventually joins, a derby team.
Predictability ensues, as the film follows the conventions of every “follow your dreams, defy authority” narrative. Still, the plot’s obvious points are far from being a detriment to the film — in avoiding a complex, sprawling story, “Whip It” is able to focus on substantially fleshing out its characters and giving insight into nearly all of the film’s numerous supporting roles.
One of the film’s most absorbing characters is Bliss’s best friend, played by Alia Shawkat (TV’s “Arrested Development”), who shows enough spunk and acting ability to carry a film by herself. Shawkat elevates her role from the stock “reliable friend” stereotype to a realistic, empathetic character, uncovering her character’s lofty ambitions and hidden vulnerabilities.
Other key supporting players stem from Bliss’s new world of roller derby, a place where all the ladies flaunt their stark hilarity, possess clever nicknames (Jabba the Slut, anyone?) and display an uninhibited ferocity, tripping, checking and slugging each other with the viciousness possessed by a hoard of tween girls at a Robert Pattinson autograph signing. Bliss — later named “Babe Ruthless” — joins The Hurl Scouts, a team of aggressive-yet-apathetic women that features the spunky, perceptive Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig, TV’s “Saturday Night Live”) and the oft-injured, vindictive Smashley Simpson, played by Barrymore herself.
Even the genre’s most criminally one-dimensional character — the cocky rival — has relatable issues for once. Bliss’s chief competitor in this film is Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, “Old School”), who is pleasantly given plausible motivations for her extreme bitchiness.
The stern parental authority figure is always an easy punching bag, but as you’ve probably deduced by now, in “Whip It,” these people are more than just autocratic dream crushers. Bliss’s mother and father have more than their fair share of vices, secrets and insecurities hidden behind the façade of their values-driven lifestyle.
While “Whip It” is certainly a female-empowering film, men are not simply thrust off to the side either. Two of the film’s more memorable characters are Razor (Andrew Wilson, “Idiocracy”) the jean-shorts-clad coach of the Hurl Scouts, and Jimmy Fallon (TV’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”) as “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket, the derby’s animated announcer. Razor’s deadpan delivery and Rocket’s witty commentary generate some of the biggest laughs in the film.
The film’s soundtrack also stands out, with the angelic melodies of Radiohead adorning poignant scenes and the furious beats of the Kaiser Chiefs fueling the high-octane roller derby matches.
A quality chick flick is a rare treat, so boyfriends or girlfriends, take note. “Whip It” is lovable, touching, energetic and even a little inspiring.