Having been a star player in Hollywood her entire life, Drew Barrymore views the set from the other side of the camera, in “Whip It” (released in Japan as “Roller Girls Diary”) — a wobbly but adorable, whip-smart feature debut. Barrymore, whose own screen presence is always wildly ingratiating, made a few brilliant choices here: the selection of the material (based on an autobiographical novel of the same name by real-life roller girl Shauna Cross), a peppy cast (including can-do-no-wrong Ellen Page and the captivating Juliette Lewis) and the decision to hurl everyone into roller boot camp for four weeks prior to shooting. The result is that we get to see some of Hollywood’s most treasured female talents take to the derby track wearing 100 layers of eyeliner and fishnets — to snarl, growl and beat the crap out of each other. Who’d want to miss that?
Roller Derby is a sport that originated sometime during the 1930s, and fizzled out 40 years later. In 2000 it came back — mostly to Austin, Texas, where the best and biggest tournaments are played out in a stadium crammed with screaming fans. The rules are deceptively simple — the players skate on an oval track competing for speed, wherewithal and the guts to elbow smash an opponent right into the fence. There’s not much money in the sport — most of the players have day jobs — for a whole lot of physical riskiness that involve broken limbs, knee fractures and other hazards on a daily basis. But ah, the glory of being a hellcat hero on wheels. In “Whip It,” Lewis plays a 36-year-old skater who goes by the name of “Iron Maven” and has an attitude the size of the San Andreas fault. She’s not afraid to hammer a newcomer onto the track (face first) but is equally willing to take whatever blows that come her way.
The protagonist is Bliss Cavendar (Page), a small-town teen in a truck stop burg in Texas, whose one claim to fame is a pork burger called “The Squealer,” and which is served at The Oink Joint where Bliss works after school. Her mail-carrrier mom Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) is a former beauty queen who hounds Bliss into entering every beauty pageant in a 50-mile radius, and, not surprisingly, indie-rock loving misfit Bliss hates the whole thing. Just when she tires of life at home with the family (her dad is played with bemused, understated hilarity by Daniel Stern), she stumbles on a flier for a women’s roller derby game. Bliss’ sixth sense tells her to go see it, so she lies to her parents and hitches a ride to Austin with best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat). Bliss is immediately hooked — to the fever, danger and sheer blood/guts excitement of the game, and the lanky Oliver (Landon Pigg) — a band vocalist whose eye she caught in the parking lot.
Desperate for derby acceptance, Bliss lies about her age and tries for a slot in the “Hurl Scouts” — where her teammates consist of such sassy ladies as Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell from “Kill Bill 2″), Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and Whole Foods checkout-girl-by-day Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself). Once she shows her colors (her small size and hardy knees give her the kind of speed no one else has) and earns the roller pseudonym of Babe Ruthless, Bliss becomes the season’s newest idol and poster girl. It looks like she has finally found her niche in the world and is on the way to being, as Maggie had told her, “Your own hero.”
“Whip It” rolls familiar themes of coming of age, feminist polemics, the mother-daughter thing, just-do-it sports aesthetics — into one messy, sticky dough, but the nonexpertise of the enterprise makes it endearing. A seasoned director would have allotted more screen time to the psychoanalytical stuff without taking time away from the roller game sequences (extremely entertaining as everyone in the cast takes hard falls and gets back up fuming), but Barrymore is a little out of her depth when it comes to connecting the incidents to form a coherent chain. But she’s not afraid to show it either. Brazen about its faults and blase about its strengths, “Whip It” operates on the feisty, devil-may-care bravado of the derby players. Through bleeding noses and runny mascara, everyone seems to be having a helluva time — and for once, it doesn’t look like mere Hollywood pretension.