NPR logo 'Whip It': An Outsider In Motion, In Search Of A Clan


'Whip It': An Outsider In Motion, In Search Of A Clan

Green Machine: Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page, center) finds a family of choice on the Hurl Scouts roller derby team. Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

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Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Pictures

Whip It

  • Director: Drew Barrymore
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Running Time: 111 minutes

Rated PG-13: Typical naughty teenage behavior

With: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Alia Shawkat, Juliette Lewis

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'Football Game'

'23 Seconds'

'Ready, Set, Go!'

With a title like Whip It, you might expect Drew Barrymore's directing debut to be a little risky (or a lot risque). That title, however, is as kinky as it gets: Like its maker, Whip It is bright, bouncy and winning, a genial celebration of roller derby and girl power that never hits too hard or delves too deep. Even the bruises — and there are quite a few — are more flattering than frightening.

A bubbly mash-up of sports drama and coming-of-age saga, the movie revels in cliches from both genres without sacrificing audience goodwill. Much of this is due to a tight, mostly female ensemble led by Juno star Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a disgruntled high-schooler in the tiny town of Bodeen, Texas. Already well on the way to becoming typecast as the punky teenage misfit, Page makes 17-year-old Bliss believably alienated, both from her pageant-happy mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her football-mad father (an excellent Daniel Stern). In Bodeen, the sexes are as segregated in their obsessions as in their opportunities.

Everything changes, however, when Bliss encounters the rock 'n' roll charm of two roller derby girls. Before you can say "jammer," she's headed for the Austin tryouts, Barbie skates and fake birth date in tow. Luckily the Hurl Scouts, runts of their league, can't afford to be picky, and Bliss — rechristened Babe Ruthless — is soon charging round the rink, throwing elbows and trying not to throw up her dinner. And as her teammates offer tips and tough love, Bliss is transformed: For the first time, her expression matches her name.

Filmed in Ann Arbor, Mich., from a watery screenplay by Shauna Cross (who based it on her semiautobiographical novel, Derby Girl), Whip It is untidily structured and disappointingly repetitive. (Endless scenes of girls racing around a circuit induce a special kind of vertigo, no matter how short the skirts or tight the shirts.) Authenticity is not even a goal: One body slam from bruisers like these and it's clear the fragile Bliss — a china doll in a sport crammed with Transformers — would be pummeled to pulp. (That said, the film is subtle enough to suggest that the fear in her mother's eyes has more to do with class than with violence.)

Sweet Sounds Of Love: Like many another misfit, Bliss can't seem to resist the charms of the boy (Landon Pigg) in the band. Darren Michael/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

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Darren Michael/Warner Bros. Pictures

Sweet Sounds Of Love: Like many another misfit, Bliss can't seem to resist the charms of the boy (Landon Pigg) in the band.

Darren Michael/Warner Bros. Pictures

None of this matters, however, in a film so endearingly goofy that it resolves conflict with a food fight. And as Bliss begins a tentative romance with a floppy-haired rock musician (Landon Pigg), learns to appreciate her best friend (an outstanding Alia Shawkat) and prepares for the championship game, the movie maintains an innocence as perky as its director. Not even Juliette Lewis — who brings to any project an aura of dissipation all her own — can sour the wholesomeness. Playing Bliss' archrival, Iron Maven, Lewis delivers a touching portrait of potential gone to seed and options recognized too late.

Enormously likable and sweetly unpretentious, Whip It coasts on a gently feminist vibe that's far less competitive than most high school dramas, where the sport is dating and boys are the prize. The movie might convince your tween daughter that unsafe roller skating is cool; unlike Juno, it won't convince her that unsafe sex is the same.