Three out of five stars
Rated PG-13/111 min.
During her 29-year (!) film career, Drew Barrymore has demonstrated such versatility, Hollywood survival skills and memorable work as both an actress and a producer, it’s surprising that Whip It! is her directorial debut. Barrymore produced Donnie Darko, played one of the Charlie’s Angels and Cinderella, starred in two Stephen King movies, stole scenes from an alien in E.T. and was in 50 First Dates, one of the funniest movies to ever take place in Hawaii. But she waited until she was 34 to direct her first movie and, though flawed, it shows a lot of promise.
Ellen Page stars as a debutant pageant contestant who unleashes her inner wild child when she discovers and joins the girl-powered world of roller derby. That’s really it for the story, which is pure formula most of the way and ends on too tidy a note for a movie so offbeat and skillfully constructed. Despite its shortcomings, Barrymore’s film has a bubbly energy you don’t find in a lot of comedies, particularly by first-time directors.
The key to any great comedy is in the cast, and this one has a perfectly assembled ensemble of cut-ups. Page isn’t playing another variation on the characters she embodied in Juno and Smart People—her performance here is different, vulnerable and winning. Andrew Wilson, Owen’s older brother, is a riot as the seen-it-all-before roller derby coach; his character is introduced listening to Wilson Phillips and wearing jean shorts, a nice, typically goofy touch. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern are terrific as Page’s working class parents; Juliette Lewis is a perfectly hissable villain; Landon Pigg, playing the love interest, actually looks like a real teen who plays in a rock band instead of glossy twenty-something star; and Barrymore humbly plays the small, thankless part of the game’s most frequently injured player. Best of all is Kristin Wiig, wonderful as the most down-to-earth player on the team; she gives parental advice that is so practical and honest, I thought I was watching a John Hughes movie.
In addition to the acting, what works surprisingly well are the roller derby action sequences, which are made exciting by the fluid filming, sharp editing and skate n’ smash prowess of the actresses, who look like they’re really slamming into one another. The screenplay and the book it’s based on were written by Shauna Cross, who presents a fictionalized take on her life, which is why the movie feels so authentic and fresh even when the story recycles every available sports movie cliché.
Many women may exit the theater wondering where they can buy gnarly skating gear and suit up for some roller-thrashin’. Who could blame them? The sport looks like a hell of a lot of fun. Maui Time Weekly, Barry Wurst II