Take Drew Barrymore: Mix in some of her feel-good friend fare, her experiences and appreciation of all things 80s, some of Hollywood’s most kick-ass girls, and rollerskates, and you’ll come up with “Whip It.” An ’80s film for a new millennium, “Whip It” is rough, fun, and hip-checkingly girly. Hit the jump to learn more about Barrymore’s directorial debut.
Without a doubt, this is Ellen Page’s movie; everything rests on her shoulders, and she pulls it off with ease and tough abandon. Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a girl caught in her mother’s hopeful vision of pageantry – white dresses, sweet and saccharine “smarts,” and typical pageant horrors. But Bliss wants something different for herself – she just doesn’t know what. With the helpful support of best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), Bliss is the classic trendy loner – the girl who is perfectly cool and lovable on the big screen, while a total outcast and loner amongst the popular kids and pageant winners around her.
Clad in a retro Stryper shirt – the old Christian metal band serving as both a badge of uniqueness and a security blanket – Bliss just hopes for something she can really believe in and feel passionate about. And that comes rolling into a store one day in the form of hard-core, rollerskating roller derby girls. Bliss is mesmerized, and once she sees the girls in action for herself, she’s found her passion. Pretending she’s 21, she tries out and wins a spot on The Hurl Scouts as “Babe Ruthless.” She might be tiny, but she’s got the speed that the Scouts need – especially since they’re a group of women skating for fun – so much so that they don’t put a lot of effort into it and haven’t ever won a game.
You can easily imagine how this plays out. Just grab one of those feel-good ’80s films, throw in some trendy, tone-changing music cues from the ’90s, and place it in the modern day. But there are some twists – and they make all the difference. This isn’t a film where Andie defies her own character and doesn’t jump for Duckie, or one where the teen girls are reduced to nothing more than doting romantic fools for the boys they love. There is romance, but it’s handled smartly. There is a happy ending, but it’s free of over-the-top and highly unbelievable resolutions.
Having said that, “Whip It” isn’t a film without faults, it just succeeds in spite of them. Barrymore is still too entrenched in the smiling camaraderie of “Charlie’s Angels,” where the girls look at each other and lay on those phony grins. It, simply, never looks natural. And although she made an impressive turn recently as Little Edie in “Grey Gardens,” her Smashley Simpson is too much of a caricature – too silly, and always seeming the odd woman out amongst some really great women. Shawkat plays the best friend with flair that makes you wish she could get in on the derby action. Juliette Lewis is a great multi-layered rival with Dinah Might. But the best surprise is Kristen Wiig – Malice in Wonderland. While she has ridiculous moments that reflect her typical SNL fare and comedy cameos, it’s balanced with heart, revealing a layered performance that shows how seriously underused some of her talents are.
But regardless of her trite character, Barrymore has adeptly handled the sea of feature filmmaking. The action and skating is tantalizing, and she really has a handle on her audience. With the help of ex-derby girl Shauna Cross’ script, Barrymore creates a film that works on a number of levels, delivering to a number of audiences. There’s solid action and laughs, solid parents (perfectly played by Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern) for the older set, funky music, and best of all – a really great message for young girls. It serves up real and diverse women without making the message too saccharine, and excellent, modern life lessons are relayed without falling to the depths of preachy despair.