By Roger Moore
Drew Barrymore’s directing debut, “Whip It,” is a nostalgic follow-your-bliss coming-of-age comedy. The big-screen’s queen of quirky cool passes the baton to the New Drew, Ellen Page, in a role Barrymore might have once taken herself.
This is “Juno” meets “Slap Shot,” a well-directed, well-cast romp that doesn’t quite transcend its worn formula but is still the best girl-powered sports film since “Bend it Like Beckham.”
Page plays Bliss, a 17-year-old suffering the close-minded provincialism of tiny Bodeen, Texas. Most provincial of all is her own mom (Marcia Gay Harden, just perfect) who pushes her and her younger sister into every pageant in town. Postal-worker mom preps her girls for life as she lived it. Dad (Daniel Stern) is just an eyewitness to this square peg/round hole fiasco.
Then Bliss discovers roller derby, where the women are tough and take stage names such as Smashley Simpson and Bloody Holly. It’s in the hipster haven of Austin, and after she’s seen the glittering skate-shaped disco ball, Bliss will never be satisfied with pageants and waitressing at The Oink Joint again.
Barrymore cast Kristen Wiig, stuntwoman Zoe Bell and soul-singer Eve as the Hurl Scouts, who team up with Bliss, aka “Babe Ruthless.” Juliette Lewis tears it up as their nemesis. Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross (who adapted her novel, “Derby Girl”) even have brutish skate sisters, a tribute to the great hockey comedy “Slap Shot.”
As sporty coming-of-age pictures go, this doesn’t give us much we haven’t seen before. Barrymore stages great mother-daughter acting moments, a food fight (Barrymore is the Bluto in this “Animal House”), and a sexy underwater make-out scene. A lovely tracking shot has Page stumbling in Barbie skates, then lighting up as she remembers how fun this is.
The musician love interest (Landon Pigg) is bland, and there’s probably more emphasis on the derby than need be. Director Drew has made a movie about growing up and being a little cool about it as you do, but her savviest move was recognizing in the flip, hip Canadian Page a lot of herself.