You gotta love Drew Barrymore! Ever since her sweetness captured our hearts as Gertie in “E.T.,” she’s been an authentic original. Now the former child star/hippie girl with anger issues has grown into not only an admirable character actress (HBO’s “Grey Gardens”), a formidable producer of 10 films including the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise, but also a smart, savvy, first-time director with a high-spirited sense of inspiring female empowerment.
In the tiny town of Bodeen, Texas, tomboyish 17 year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) endures the utter banality of entering one beauty pageant after another, propelled by the frustration of her one-time beauty queen mother-turned-mail carrier mother (Marcia Gay Harden). When she’s not in school, she’s working with her nerdy BBF, Pash (Alia Shawkat), as a waitress at the Oink BBQ joint. But Bliss’s life changes completely when discovers real ‘girl power’ at a rowdy Hurl Scouts roller derby match in nearby Austin. Scared yet intrigued, she sneaks off to tryouts, hitching a ride on the senior citizens’ Bingo Bus and lying about her age. Miraculously, she’s chosen by long-suffering Coach Razor (Andrew Wilson, younger brother of Owen and Luke), who reminds her: “This is a contact sport…I need you to make contact.” Adopting the tough-sounding derby name “Babe Ruthless,” she’s defiantly determined to prove herself to older teammates like “Maggie Mayhem” (Kristin Wiig) and “Bloody Holly” (Zoe Bell) and especially her intimidating rival, “Iron Maven” (Juliette Lewis), not to mention a certain band boy (real-life rocker Landon Pigg).
Written by Shauna Cross, the engaging coming-of-age story celebrates friendship and camaraderie while artfully delineating the struggle within families to understand one another – and many of Barrymore’s direction choices evoke memories of Paul Newman’s “Slap Shot.” Ellen Page proves that “Juno” was no fluke; she’s the real deal insofar as talent goes. Barrymore steps from behind-the-camera to charm as a klutzy skater named “Smashley Simpson” and Daniel Stern scores as Bliss’ football-loving father. On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Whip It” whirls in with an effervescent 8. It’s a rough-and-tumble rivalry on wheels.