Whip It

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut ushers in a new era of girl power.

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut ushers in a new era of girl power

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a small-town Texas misfit who joins a roller derby team in Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It! ((Fox Searchlight))

Drew Barrymore might be an A-list star, but throughout her lengthy acting career she's always radiated a down-to-earth, geeky charm that can make her seem more like a friend than a celebrity. She's been labelled America's Sweetheart, but one senses Barrymore feels more at home when she's hanging with the freaks.

That oddball spirit buoys Whip It, Barrymore's assured, appealing directorial debut. Adapted from Derby Girl, a novel penned by former competitive roller girl Shauna Cross, the film begins in Bodeen, Tex., one of those flat, dreary American towns where winning a free sandwich at the Oink Joint BBQ shack constitutes a rockin' Saturday night.

It's home to Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a bespectacled, hesitant teen who secretly prefers blue hair and Ramones songs to the beauty pageant regime her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) prescribed for her at birth. As one might expect, Bliss is desperate to get the hell out of Bodeen.

An exit strategy presents itself when Bliss stumbles on a flyer for a roller derby, taking place in neighbouring Austin. When she sees the Hurl Scouts team in action, she's in awe. These broads have rejected lip gloss and tiaras for body-checking and bloody noses. Bliss is quick to strap on her own pair of Barbie skates and, after some arduous laps around the track, she reincarnates herself as "Babe Ruthless," one of the fastest girls in the league.

Sporting green helmets and ripped fishnets, the rough-and-tumble Hurl Scouts throw themselves with gusto into the physically demanding sport. Though they relish competition, they're not all that concerned with victory: after losing yet another match, the team gleefully chants "We're number two!"

Whip It places the emphasis squarely on camaraderie, and one of the joys of the movie is seeing Bliss come into her own with the encouragement of a band of affectionate misfits that includes maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), dopey bruiser Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) and gentle giant Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell). Whip It courses with a keyed-up, anarchic energy whenever these gals take to the track.

Bliss gains confidence with the help of her roller derby friends the Hurl Scouts (seen in mirror). ((Fox Searchlight))

While the derby scenes don't always deliver the oomph you'd expect from an action sequence, Barrymore still achieves something fresh. The camera steals passing glances at one derby girl's robust posterior, zeroes in on another's muscular arms and offers a fleeting glimpse of Bloody Holly's concrete thighs, celebrating the atypical, Amazonian beauty of each Hurl Scout. And just as Bliss leaves the meek beauty queens of Bodeen behind, Barrymore delivers a wonderful kiss-off to all of the underfed, needy waifs who are becoming a depressing fixture in Hollywood chick flicks.

There are certainly more conventional teen-movie moments in Whip It - a Girls Gone Wild food fight and twee montages of Bliss's budding relationship with her shaggy-haired indie rocker boyfriend, Oliver, feel a little stale. But every time the material is in danger of becoming predictable, Barrymore steers things in surprising new directions.

In particular, Bliss's fraught relationship with her mother is handled with remarkable maturity and insight. As played by Marcia Gay Harden, Brooke Cavendar is far from the narrow-minded ogre she first appears to be. She might have Little Miss Sunshine fantasies, but when she finally grasps how much misery these aspirations have caused Bliss, she hunkers down on the kitchen floor beside her daughter and talks it out.

Whip It is that rare movie where parents fight fiercely to understand and champion their kids - no matter how much it pains them to do so. Harden is characteristically top-notch, but Barrymore draws terrific performances from her entire eclectic cast. It's especially satisfying to see Ellen Page play a character who doesn't always have a snappy retort at the ready, and this vulnerable performance should help her shake off the wise-ass teen persona she's been shackled by ever since the success of Juno. While that smug indie hit appeared to be about a savvy, self-possessed alterna-girl, Whip It proves to be the far more interesting - and genuine -commentary on female empowerment.

Early on in the film, Maggie Mayhem urges Bliss to be her own hero, and every time the young heroine picks her bruised body up off the track and keeps on skating, we know she's heeded that advice. Bliss skates because she loves it, and it's exhilarating to watch this outsider finally discover a place where she can let her freak flag fly. She's found her tribe, and if this smart debut is any indication, Drew Barrymore has found hers, too. 

Whip It opens Oct. 2.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.