I’ll give director Drew Barrymore this: she made Ellen Page appealing. “Whip It” takes the tart-tongued “Juno” star to the crashin’, smashin’ world of roller derby for a coming-of-age dramedy that bites off a little more than it can chew. Energetically woven by Barrymore, the film suffers from an acute case of the adaptation blues, trying to cram in as many plot points as possible to fill its belly with caloric melodrama. It’s a diluted journey of feminine self-realization, better with bruises and teamwork than it is with pliable matters of the heart.
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a small town teen from Texas dealing with her mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) nagging efforts to turn her into a beauty queen. Feeling more comfortable in combat boots than heels, Bliss finds her bliss when she happens upon a roller derby league in Austin, meeting the ladies of the Hurl Scouts, including Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and their coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson).
Underage, Bliss lies her way onto the team, though her unexpected speed quickly wins her fans and the Hurl Scouts a few games. Leading a double life to keep her parents (also including Daniel Stern) away from her roller skating passion, Bliss (rechristened Babe Ruthless on the track) soon gets mixed up with a singer (Landon Pigg), alienates her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), and finds the sanctity of her beloved sisterhood of brawlers threatened by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), a rival out to destroy the young star.
Written by Shauna Cross (adapted from her own 2007 novel), “Whip It” holds the raw materials to shape itself into a rousing statement of empowerment. In a year that has seen nearly every female-driven picture lose itself to mind-numbing romantic submission, “Whip It” promises early that it’s going to be different, that it will allow Bliss to locate her emotional core without the need to cloud the bright blue sky of potential with formulaic drivel. In her feature-length directorial debut, Barrymore seizes true inspiration right out of the gate, building the first act of the film into a tingling journey of closeted rebellion finding a glad hand on the track. I adored how Barrymore carefully situated Bliss on the edge of maturation, finding the needs of her parents falling behind her as she comes to develop her own voice among her battered teammates, along with a claim made on her burgeoning sexual confidence.
It isn’t long before Barrymore can’t make up her mind what to do with Bliss. While punctuated with roller derby game footage (along with a much needed primer on how scoring works), “Whip It” doesn’t seem fascinated with the sport, only the residual effects of the mascara-heavy revolution. I wanted more time with the Hurl Scouts, as only Maggie is allowed a life beyond the track to explore. Bliss’s interaction with her teammates is nominal, regulated to training, locker room banter, and a food fight, leaving Barrymore room to delve into cliched events that help harden Bliss, including a romance with emo star boyfriend, Oliver.
Conceived and photographed like a Mentos commercial, the romantic subplot strips away any value “Whip It” held as iconic clenched fist of empowerment. Hustling a boy in to complicate Bliss’s world is a lazy device to congeal the drama, a pain doubled by Pigg’s Carol Brady appearance and lousy acting chops. Oliver could be completely stripped out of the film without hurting Bliss’s arc, and I’m disappointed that Barrymore felt she needed to spend so much time on such obvious storytelling mechanics. There’s so much with Bliss’s parents, teammates, and friends to explore that easily account for the emotional development requirement of the feature. Bringing in a “cute” guy who can’t act needlessly stops the film cold, revealing Barrymore’s limitations as a filmmaker. In a story that appears to encourage the birth of individuality, adding a toxic dollop of contrived crush hysterics poisons all the good will.
“Whip It” rebounds with a familiar but compassionate finale that reinforces the fine, understated work from Page, who reveals a vulnerability I never knew she was capable of expressing. She’s a wonderful human foundation for the punches, ironic heavy metal t-shirts, and hyperactive soundtrack cuts. The pleasures of “Whip It” outweigh the disappointments, but it’s a photo finish. Barrymore has the eye and moxie to deliver screen delights with a considerable amount of flair, but she needs some encouragement in the bravery department.