Like many coming of age tales that provide feel good fun, Whip It could have easily served up every predictable Hollywood moment(which it does do on occasion). But the film manages to throw you a few pleasant curve balls as well.
In her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore pulls together a stellar cast of familiar faces, and injects her decades of film experience as an actor and producer, into a multi-layered comedy filled with some remarkable performances and one of the most memorable trio of scenes to hit the screen in years.
Written by Shauna Cross, who simultaneously adapted and wrote her novel Derby Girl, Whip It stars Ellen Page as small town girl Bliss Cavender, a 17 year-old standing on the cross roads of her own bold choices, and those of her mother's traditionalism. When Bliss finds solace in nearby Austin, Texas' resurgence of the rough and tumble sport of Roller-Derby(by lying about her age), she must attempt to juggle her new found independent identity, her first romance, and her mother's overriding Beauty Pageant dreams.
Page gives a charming subtlety to Bliss, a much more rooted and realistic character than that of her other well known misfit... you know who I'm talking about. Page is truly at the top of her game, expressing both strength and a heart wrenching vulnerability as her secret lives as a derby-girl, and as an underage high-schooler unravel--especially in scenes with her mother, played superbly by Marcia Gay Harden, and her understanding and peace keeping father, warmly and lovingly played by Daniel Stern.
Unfortunately for Whip It, it does succumb to a major pitfall that most sports dramas fall into. Bliss' team, the Hurl Scouts, have to climb their way up from last place in the league, in order to make it into the championship bout(or into an interesting movie). But where most sports films can provide that home-run hit, buzzer beating winning play, or photo finish, Whip It has to rely on a chaotic scoring system, within a sport that simply isn't well known or understood. So bring on the confusing montages, and the sleazy bearded announcer played by a funny but one note Jimmy Fallon. But your lack of knowledge won't matter, as the rollerskating hotties(including Death Proof's Zoe Bell, Nick And Norah's Ari Graynor and singer-actor Eve) in skimpy outfits steal your attention during those scenes anyway.
Some of the fraternization between the different teams during training and tryouts seemed a little inappropriate as well. It's very possible that this really is how opposing teams are; brawling while on the track, and then grabbing beers and sharing hot tubs off it.
But this juxtaposition may be why Juliette Lewis' character and performance seemed a tad over the top. As "Iron Maven," leader of the defending champions the Holy Rollers, Lewis is understandably threatened by the naturally fast Bliss who becomes a rising star. But the bullying she does feels out of place. Lewis even admits that it felt worse to pick on Bliss, than it did to do the horrific acts in her brutal role in Natural Born Killers. If Lewis was an overshadowed teammate instead, the character could have been a more realistically layered saboteur.
You also wonder why Barrymore chose to give herself the absent minded slapstick role of "Smashley Simpson." But you applaud the fact that she gave the most prevalent derby girl role "Maggie Mayhem", captain of the Hurl Scouts, to SNL's Kristen Wiig.
Wiig is allowed to use the uncanny comedic talents she's become known for, but is also able to showcase a more dramatic element to her acting ability. Even though Wiig can always steal scenes in movies, she proves her talents have gone grossly underused until now, when she becomes the "cool aunt" but wise mentor, taking Bliss under her wing.
Rounding out the cast is Andrew Wilson, who plays the hilarious Hurl Scout coach Razor. Wilson looks like Marvel's Thor crammed in a pair of cut off jeans, and sounds just like his brother Owen.
Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat plays Pash, the Ivy League bound bff of Page, and cohort(car ride) in her secret life. Page was tapped for Whip It long before Juno, in order to distance Page's character from her Oscar nominated performance, Barrymore and Cross gave most of the snarky lines to Shawkat, who completely makes them her own.
The greatest strength of the film lies in a visually and emotionally awe inspiring set of scenes. Page and her lanky indie-band member love interest Oliver(played by iTunes sensation Landon Pigg) go nearly dialogue free from a gas station, to a masterfully executed and iconic underwater love scene, and a completely wordless goodbye, that proves Barrymore didn't just inject her infectious energy into the film, but brought a well focused visual style and dramatic sensibility as well.
Though Whip It isn't perfect, the performances, comedy, iconic scenes and richly layered background make it perfectly enjoyable.
In theaters October 2nd.