Film Review: Whip It

2010 – 111mn – 12A

Directed by Drew Barrymore. Starring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon.

Review by Walter Nichols

WHIP It takes place in the small town of Bodeen, Texas. The narrow-minded routine of the place weighs heavily on 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) keeps signing her up to beauty pageants she wants nothing to do with, she doesn’t fit in at school, and the rest of her time is taken up with a dead-end job waitressing for jocks and cheerleaders at the local diner. When, on a trip to Austin, she discovers roller-skate derbies, a violent sport played to roaring crowds by confident, mostly tattooed, young women with names like Iron Maven and Maggie Mayhem, she finds her passion. She tries out for the Hurl Scouts, the lowliest team in the roller derby league, telling them she is 22 to pass muster. But she has to keep her new passion hidden, knowing no one back home would approve…

Whip It marks actress Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, and it’s a good if uneven film. What disappoints most is the script. It takes a good idea and throws at it every indie film clich�: beauty pageants, a dysfunctional Southern family, a precocious little girl, a hip-ish garage band soundtrack. But the themes of female awakening and double-edged sisterhood resonate, and it’s a rare film that is for, about, and made by women, treating a girl on the brink on womanhood without condescending or preaching.

Barrymore, in her maiden effort behind the camera, does well but the film never hits its stride. She directs montages and emotional scenes with a deft touch. Some moments, as when Bliss hitches her first ride to Austin on the Bingo Bus full of old people, looking out the window at all the tired scenes playing in her small hometown, beautifully capture the opening up of a young woman longing for something more, something to love and be passionate about. The comedy scenes are less well handled, their timing often off. And the roller derby scenes, which could have been anything from exciting action to sexy feminist empowerment, are too long and uninventive, mostly falling flat.

The cast are mostly great, especially Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, Kristeen Wiig (from Saturday Night Live) and Juliette Lewis (from the 90s). Ellen Page also does well, even though she channels her inner Michael Cera for most of the first half. The only disappointments are the two biggest names – Jimmy Fallon and Barrymore herself, in small roles but distracting every second they’re on screen.

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Three stars