It's been well established that Drew Barrymore is both adorable and a free spirit. Who else could show up to the Toronto premiere of her first directorial effort, the roller derby-themed film Whip It, with a hair-do that looked like something put together by a bored Jolie-Pitt child during an unsupervised hour at the chateau? If this were Lindsay Lohan, Dr. Phil would be calling for an intervention, but when Barrymore dips the last two inches of her electrocuted-looking blonde bob into skunk black, we assume her motive was not pretension or looming personal disaster, but rather some sort of unabashed joy we may not share, but which we can appreciate.
Whip it is a lot like that hairstyle. Even if a tale of female empowerment through roller derby is not your particular cup of tea, Barrymore delivers it with such a giddy good sense of fun that it's easy enough to go along with. Moreover, she emerges as a sensitive director who, despite a tendency to make some overly romantic choices, knows how and when to let an emotional moment linger on the screen.
The movie, based on screenwriter Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl, is set in the heart of small-town Texas, where a high school senior and part-time barbeque joint waitress, Bliss Cavendar (Juno's Ellen Page) is doing her best to please her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). Brooke, a faded beauty queen, would like her two daughters (Bliss is the older sister) to follow in her footsteps in the pageant world and then, after the triumph of coronation, go on to some greater future that while undefined, does not mimic her own fate of settling down with an amiable husband (Daniel Stern) in a shoe-box of a house to raise children between shifts at the Bodeen post office.
Having Bliss become a queen of the Austin roller derby circuit certainly wasn't on Brooke's agenda either. But while mother and daughters are enjoying a girls' outing to a clothing/head shop in Austin "pretty vases!" Brooke says approvingly to a case full of bongs a trio of tattoo-ed and pierced women roll in on skates, mugging maniacally as they pass out flyers for the next weekend's derby. Most teenage girls would have taken refuge from these R. Crumb-style creatures behind the Doc Martens display but not Bliss. She is enraptured.
The next thing you know she's riding the Bingo bus from Bodeen to Austin to practice with her new team, the Hurl Scouts. They all have names that sound like Blind Vices from Ted Casablanca's E! columns: Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell) and Smashly Simpson (Barrymore, cheerfully taking on the role of team idiot). Their coach is Razor, and he's played by the third and least well-known Wilson brother, Andrew. Juliette Lewis is fairly terrifying as Iron Maven, the star player for the Hurl Scouts' rival team.
The only person who knows what Bliss is up to is her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), who doesn't mind covering some of her shifts at the Oink Joint, either for the sake of the derby or Bliss's budding romance with a hipster boy from a band, Oliver (played by musician Landon Pigg). "It's a great name," Bliss sighs, her usual reserve shattered by Oliver's protruding hip bones and fervent attentions. "Yeah, if you like wayfaring Dickensian orphans," Pash says wryly. Her cynicism sets the tone for how we feel about the romance, and Barrymore's sweetly cheesy direction of two love scenes between Oliver and Bliss, one set in what looks like a wheat field and the other in a swimming pool, does not dissuade us from this.
The arc of the sports movie is such that we know we're going to have to sit through some defeats, some victories and a championship match, which of course turns out to be scheduled for the same night as one of Bliss' beauty pageants. Barrymore does a capable job with these action sequences, although tiny little Page is not the likeliest of derby contenders and the sport has such a cartoon aspect that it seems about as likely to become a national craze as Barrymore's Toronto hair style.
But she excels with people. Wiig, rapidly proving to be a solid actress and not just a comedian, has some memorable scenes, as does Shawkat, just coming off a radically different role in Amreeka. The relationships between Bliss and both her parents in particular are nuanced and very vivid. In every scene Harden reminds us that she is, deservedly, an Oscar winner, and Page manages to transcend the dangerous trap of her Juno role and make Bliss very much her own person. When Harden and Page are together on screen, whether feuding or struggling to understand each other, we're riveted by the complicated and tender nature of their mother-daughter bond.