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Roller With the Punches

MOVIE REVIEW
Whip It (2009)

Original
Darren Michaels/
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Drew Barrymore clearly remembers what it is like to be 13. She knows how difficult it is at that age to balance the wishes of your parents — who want the best for you but still treat you like a baby — with your own interests, your desires and your friends. She knows that teenage girls worry about growing up; and who they are; and how they think they are not ready for all the changes coming their way. She understands it’s scary not feeling like you fit in at school; or having to work a loser job; or having a fight with your mom.

What Ms. Barrymore has done in her directorial debut is make a movie which shows girls things will be okay. They have to be smart, and tough, and funny, and sometimes listen to other people instead of thinking they have all the answers; but doing that is not so hard. They will make some mistakes, and things will change, and the things they want will change, but “Whip It” reminds them that’s okay too. Being a girl is not all about looking pretty in a pale dress. It’s about being clever and knowing how to use your body — and if that means you get some bad bruises, so what? It’s not as scary as you’d thought. If I had seen “Whip It” when I was 13, it would have been my favorite movie ever.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss, who is 17 and bored out of her mind in small town Texas, where she lives with her hardworking parents Brooke and Earl (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern) and little sister Shania (Eulala Scheel, Ms. Harden’s daughter, who has certainly grown up since “Pollock”). She waitresses part-time with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, a smart young actress who richly deserves her own lead role) and cannot wait to grow up and get the hell out. One night she and Pash sneak out to a roller-derby exhibition in Austin which impresses them both. On telling one of the skaters, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), “You guys are my new heroes," to which Maggie responded, “Well, put some skates on. Be your own hero.” Bliss takes this advice, and everything changes.

The focus of the film is on the camaraderie between the skaters, such as Rosa Sparks (Eve, who is quietly building herself an acting career soon to rival Queen Latifah’s), Smashley Simpson (Ms. Barrymore, who saved herself the best pratfalls) and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, reminding us the movies miss her more than she misses her acting career). Bliss picks the name Babe Ruthless, and soon becomes the star of her team, the Hurl Scouts. The rules of roller derby are explained, but that’s not what the film is about. With the unfailing support of her teammates, Bliss starts to grow up.

Shauna Cross wrote the screenplay based on her memoir “Derby Girl” and charmingly gives the usual sporting movie clichés a little bit of a twist. The ending wasn’t really predictable, and Bliss’s travails manage to hit the right balance between grown-up reality and being age-appropriate. The sex isn’t too sexy, and the violence isn’t too violent. There’s not a cheerleader in sight, but instead a bunch of women knocking each other around, all in good fun; they look out for each other. The clichés of a coming-of-age story are tweaked, too. Brooke is not as uptight as her daughter thinks; Earl is proud of all his girls; and Bliss has a lot to learn from them both. Things aren’t perfect: Bliss gets Pash into trouble, and the boy she likes (Landon Pigg, endearingly indie) has to go away on tour with his band. But Bliss learns she can handle it.

Ms. Barrymore is an experienced producer but shows her nerves as a first-time director. She leans too hard on music to control mood, and falls into the roller-derby trap of going around a few too many circles. So “Whip It” is not “Citizen Kane.” Who cares? When a movie is this carefree, and this surprising, and this much fun, and makes you feel this glad to be a woman, it’s easy to forgive a lot of faults. Also, it has a food fight. How many movies are there that wouldn’t be improved by a food fight?

WHIP IT

Opens on April 7 in Britain.

Directed by Drew Barrymore; written by Shauna Cross, based on her novel “Derby Girl”; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by the Section Quartet; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; produced by Barry Mendel; released by Lionsgate U.K. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is rated 12A.

WITH: Ellen Page (Bliss Cavendar), Marcia Gay Harden (Brooke Cavendar), Kristen Wiig (Maggie Mayhem), Juliette Lewis (Iron Maven), Drew Barrymore (Smashley Simpson), Eve (Rosa Sparks), Jimmy Fallon (“Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket), Daniel Stern (Earl Cavendar), Andrew Wilson (Razor), Alia Shawkat (Pash), Landon Pigg (Oliver) and Zoe Bell (Bloody Holly).

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