Likable, entertaining "Whip It" a serviceable directorial debut for Drew Barrymore
"Whip It" is an entertaining coming-of-age-story on skates, taking place in the rough-and-tumble world of women's roller derby. The uneven but likable, easily accessible film, marking the feature film debut of Drew Barrymore, doesn't always work perfect, but there's enough energy, enjoyable moments and a great cast to make it an early fall crowd-pleaser.
In Bodeen, Texas, an indie-rock loving misfit named Bliss (Ellen Page) finds a way of dealing with her small-town misery after she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin. Bliss is constantly being pressured to enter beauty pageants by her overbearing mother (Oscar winner Marsha Gay Harden). Realizing that isn't her calling, the underage Bliss joins a roller derby group called the Hurl Scouts without the knowledge or consent of her parents. Initially, she has no idea how to skate but her teammates Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and Smashly Simpson (Barrymore) help develop her into a roller derby star named Babe Ruthless. Everything is moving along smoothly, until a very competitive rival player (Juliette Lewis) along with her disapproving mother threatens to permanently derail her new passion.
Modest and conventional, "Whip It" is filled with some amusing, colorful scenes and a serviceable directorial debut for Barrymore, who's been films for nearly 30 years and just now getting around to directing. The downsides are craggy, awkward pacing, an overlong running time (over 90 minutes is pushing it with the thin material) and a script by a novice screenwriter that lacks sharp edge and wit given the premise.
Based on the novel by actual roller derby athlete Shauna Cross, who also writes "Whip It's" screenplay, the book and movie fictionalize Cross's experiences on skates. With this in mind, the film's more entertaining scenes come in the roller derby ring, while outside the ring things get a little unsteady, with Bliss's (played by the immensely likable and droll Page from “Juno,” less sarcastic here but grounding the film well) transformation from inexperienced athlete to roller derby star feeling empty and unconvincing, though you're still rooting for her the whole way.
The banal dramatic and romantic scenes (the latter is especially misplaced) throw "Whip It" off course a little, and Barrymore's novice direction (not to mention a mediocre editing job) can't help the film get a solid footing in its mid-section, particularly when she throws in a needless, clumsy food fight as filler. Harden (“Mystic River”) is a wonderful, award-winning character actress who's miscast as Bliss’s overbearing mother; her whiny, fake Texas accent makes it evident she doesn't belong here. Also a bad idea: substituting Michigan for the Lone Star State.
Even with its awkward, uneven edge, there are still things to like about "Whip It," namely an inspired supporting cast and the roller derby scenes, which pepper the film with energy and bring the film to life. Most memorable of the large cast: "Saturday Night Live's" funniest star Wiig is good for a few laughs as a teammate, as is the perfectly slutty Lewis (where has she been lately?), Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen's older bro) as the frayed but lovable derby coach and newcomer Alia Shawkat as Bliss's longsuffering friend. Not so good: enduring the unfunny, overrated Jimmy Fallon as the derby announcer, while rapper Eve is underused as a teammate, and Barrymore herself seems to be trying too hard in a supporting role.
Barrymore’s off to a solid directorial start: it's amusing and will leave you with smiles but few genuine laugh-out loud moments. She could develop into a decent director with better, more fully developed material. Fortunately, “Whip It” has the likable presence of Page and Barrymore’s energy that may lift it into a modest, crowd-pleasing hit.