Drew Barrymore has had quite an impressive and varied career. Starting out as a child star, finding herself in rehab as a teenage only to bounce back not only as an actress (in such films as Fever Pitch and Charlie’s Angels) but also as a producer of both film and television. She’s been a producer (or executive producer) on such varied projects as the film Donnie Darko and TV’s Tough Love reality show. Now the multi-talented Barrymore has taken residence in the director’s chair with Whip It. The feisty actor/director brings her “girl power” spirit to this lively story of a young girl and her discovery of the tough as nails sport of roller derby.
Whip It centers around a high school student named Bliss (Ellen Page of Juno) who lives in a tiny town in rural Texas. Bliss feels lost, she doesn’t fit in with most of the kids her own age except for her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of TV’s Arrested Development.) There’s also a disconnect between herself and her mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden of Mystic River.) Her mother encourages young Bliss to participate in beauty pageants, and while she may once have taken some enjoyment from the activity she now does it almost entirely to please her mother. While out at a shopping trip to Austin the disaffected Bliss comes across a flyer for roller derby. She and Pash go to the match and Bliss is in complete awe of the strong yet beautiful women on the rink. When, after the match, she stops to express her new found love of the sport she’s encouraged by Maggie Mayhem (played by Kristen Wiig of MacGruber,) the team captain of the Hurl Scouts, to come to their try outs. Bliss tries out for the team and manages to put down impressive speed which gets her in. It isn’t long before she’s become a breakout star under the name Babe Ruthless, even though her parents are totally unaware of what it is she’s doing.
Barrymore has brought together a truly great female cast for Whip It. Ellen Page has that same awkward likability that she’s becoming famous for that helps Bliss be a very relatable character who’s easy to root for. The girls who make up the various roller derby teams are just great raucous fun to watch. Some highlights include Juliette Lewis (The Other Sister) as rival captain Iron Maven and Barrymore herself as hard partying Hurl Scout member Smashley Simpson. All of the girls are clearly having a blast, both in playing the sport and just being in the movie. The whole film has a vibe to it that makes it clear that there was great fun being had on the set. While there aren’t many men in the film most of them are quite fun as well. Jimmy Fallon (host of TV’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) adds his energy to the mix as the roller derby announcer and Daniel Stern (Home Alone) is a grounding force as Bliss’ more laid back father.
When Whip It plays to its strengths it’s really good, bordering on great even. When the focus is on the sport of roller derby (either the matches themselves or the interactions of the women who play it) the film displays real true female empowerment. Most things that get labeled “girl power” are anything that show women not ending up in a romance at the end. However just not having a relationship with a man be the main focus doesn’t make something “girl power.” Sadly however we live in a world where vapid shallow films such as The Bratz Movie are what pass for “girl power.” Anybody old enough to remember when the Spice Girls were considered “girl power?” Scary times, and little has improved. However this is real true empowerment going on in this film, and without the spouting of some lame “girls rule” or “men suck” catch phrases. The women in the movie who play the sport are strong yet beautiful, hard partying yet at times caring. This is a movie that simply shows how girls can kick butt just as hard as guys, yet it’s smart enough to not ever feel the need to spell that message out.
Unfortunately when Whip It is not dealing with roller derby it has some very cliched dead weight. The biggest problem is the romantic sub plot that Bliss has with a sensitive “bad boy” named Oliver (newcomer Landon Pigg.) This entire aspect of the film really should have been dropped completely, it adds nothing to the rest of the film and isn’t in the least bit interesting. It’s hampered even further by the fact that any viewer who’s seen two “teen girl’s first crush” movies knows EXACTLY how it’s going to play out. It also bloats the run time of the film to about two hours. The film as a whole would have gone down smoother at a slightly leaner run time and a good 15 minutes (at least) could have gone out the window by just dropping this pointless story angle. There are some other minor issues, such as the fact that Bliss is 17 and she’s supposed to be 21 to play the sport (which is handled rather half heartedly and again doesn’t add anything.)
Despite some narrative dead weight when Whip It is properly focused it flies. Not only is the roller derby done really well but the relationship between Bliss and her mother is also handled rather deftly. The mother is never overly demonized (she clearly loves Bliss, she just doesn’t understand her) and Bliss actually gets called out for being a bit of a crummy daughter at times (which is a sadly rare thing and gives the relationship a good balance.) There are some clear flaws but much of it could probably be chalked up to this being Barrymore’s first time directing. With a debut like this viewers should already be excited for what she can bring to the screen now that this first film is behind her.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5