Whip It (review)

Good Bliss Hunting

I always knew Drew Barrymore could be this cool: her directorial debut is a simultaneously sweet and kickass story about one girl’s finding her bliss, a movie that works within Hollywood conventions of storytelling to handily demonstrate that just because a tale is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be fresh and funny and edgy, too.
Ellen Page, in a performance so radically different from her turns in Juno and Hard Candy that she has now surely cemented her place as the best young actress working today, is the ironically named Bliss Cavendar, a Texas high schooler from a small “armpit of a town” who couldn’t be less blissful. Shy and nervous and “alternative,” though she’s so naive she doesn’t realize her conformist peers are taunting her when they dub her thus, she’s exactly wrong for the beauty pageant circuit her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden: The Mist, Into the Wild), has her making the rounds of. But then she discovers the world of tournament women’s roller derby in nearby Austin, and before long she is sneaking into town with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), for team auditions, then practices, then tournaments. She’s lying to Mom and Dad (Daniel Stern: A Previous Engagement, Very Bad Things), meets a cute boy (Landon Pigg), ends up alienating Pash, sees it all work out in the long run, and learns all sorts of things about herself along the way.

The arc of Bliss’s metaphoric journey from is recognizable — it’s the little details that make the movie sing with the authority that announces the arrival of a filmmaker to watch… and that makes it such awesome good fun. Shauna Cross’s screenplay (based on her own novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]) smartly makes Bliss’s mother — who does not, of course, approve of this dangerous derby stuff once she learns about it — nothing like the total villain a more cartoonish version of this same story would have her, but a woman with her own secrets and passions; Harden is always a treat to watch, but especially here, and particularly in how Brooke’s relationship with her husband lets us know from the first that she is as passionate a woman as her daughter is turning out to be.

But hoorah for Barrymore! She’s made a movie that is somehow pleasant and prickly at the same time, one full of personality and energy and yet reeling with an effervescent wistfulness too, capturing the uncertainty and exhilaration of those last stages of adolescence when you’re finally starting to get the hang of yourself.

And even more to cheer: this is a movie not just about a young woman — so hard to come by in tolerable form these days — but one about lots of women. Lots of different women. The skaters Bliss encounters in the derby world are a wild bunch of tough, cool, strong, vulnerable women, all doing their stuff together or in opposition but with a rancor that is so good-natured that it cannot help but rub off on you. (The good-naturedness, that is, not the rancor. It’s hard to imagine anyone hating this movie.) The rest of the cast list reads like who’s who of splendidly animated and vivacious women: Kristen Wiig (Extract, Adventureland), Zoe Bell (Gamer, Death Proof), Juliette Lewis (Catch and Release, Starsky & Hutch), Eve (Barbershop 2: Back in Business, XXX), Barrymore herself (Lucky You, Curious George), all portraying a spectrum of cool derby chicks with names like “Maggie Mayhem” and “Bloody Holly” that perfectly embody their spirit and humor. (There are guys worth mentioning, too: Andrew Wilson [Idiocracy, Fever Pitch], brother to Owen and Luke, is delightful as their coach.)

Barrymore directs all the zippy skating action with breathtaking aplomb — and she handles the sequence in which the rules of roller derby are explained with such easy grace that you’ll forget to remember that it’s an info dump… and you’ll forget you never understood the rules in the first place, she makes it seem so intuitive.

“I am in love with this,” Bliss has to insist to her mother when Brooke wants her to give it up. That’s how I feel about this flick, too: I’m in love with it, and in love with the fact that it got made at all. More like this, please.

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