How's Drew Barrymore's directorial debut? Well, some critics say it's a bit slow and predictable. However, all agree that despite its faults, the rollerderby film is "unreasonably entertaining" and more intelligent and empowering than most films marketed to women.
Whip It, which opens today, was adapted by Shauna Cross from her novel Derby Girl. Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar, who lives in a small town in Texas and is being coached by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to compete in beauty pageants. One day, she sees an ad for the Roller Derby in Austin and sneaks off to see a game with her best friend Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat). She falls in love with the sport and secretly joins a team called the Hurl Scouts, which includes Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, and Eve (who, for the most part, do their own skating).
Along the way Bliss clashes with her mom, her best friend, her indie rocker boyfriend Oliver (Landon Piig), and her roller derby rival Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). A few critics complain that the plot is filled with sports-movie cliches and doesn't focus enough on real athletic ability, but all say that at the very least, the movie is extremely fun to watch. Below, a look at what the critics have to say.
"Whip It" is an unreasonably entertaining movie, causing you perhaps to revise your notions about women's Roller Derby, assuming you have any. The movie is a coming-together of two free spirits, Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page, and while it may not reflect the kind of female empowerment Gloria Steinem had in mind, it has guts, charm, and a black-and-blue sweetness. Yes, it faithfully follows the age-old structure of the sports movie, but what a sport, and how much the Derby girls love it. Yes, the movie has cliches. Yes, it all leads up to a big game. Yes, there is a character's validating appearance near the end. Yes, and so what? The movie is miles more intelligent than most of the cream-of-wheat marketed to teenage girls. Funnier, more exciting, even liberating. In her debut as a director, Barrymore shows she must have been paying attention ever since Spielberg cast her when she was 5. She and her team do an especially effective job in staging the derby showdowns.
The high-spirited story of an underdog who makes good, Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" looks a lot like your average sports flick. At heart, however, it's that happiest of surprises: a multiplex movie that genuinely respects its young audience.... Yes, the story is completely conventional. And it's true that the performances run the gamut, from awkward (Zoe Bell) to awesome (Kristen Wiig). But everyone - including Barrymore, playing an extra-violent Hurl Scout - seems to be having a blast, with a fierce Juliette Lewis, as Bliss' rival, leading the pack... Too many films geared toward young women casually undercut them in ways that are alternately lazy and cruel. You won't find any of that here - just a giddy blast of girl power that races confidently around the track while hip-checking Hollywood's worst tendencies.
Essentially, the film is a chicks-on-skates/coming-of-age/sports-drama/comedy/feminist polemic set in the racy world of roller derby. If it sounds as if it would be easy to lose your footing in all of that, it is. And on occasion Barrymore does, and not just because the floors are slick. But for the most part, the 34-year-old Barrymore, with much of her life spent in front of the camera and more than a few impressive producing credits already in the bank, proves steady on her feet, able to handle curves and straightaways with equal grace... Make no mistake, this is no deep treatise on female athletes — rent "Million Dollar Baby" or "Personal Best" for that. Instead, Barrymore has chosen to go broad — packing "Whip It" with tough, sarcastic chicks willing to totally commit to Maggie Mayhem's "be your own hero" mantra. They are, to put it bluntly, hell on wheels . . . exactly what happens when the skate fits.
This familiar yet simultaneously different heartwarming tale of misunderstandings, smothering love and ultimate triumph is loaded with cliches, as might be expected. But somehow writer Shauna Cross (adapting from her novel) manages to continually inflect the story with fresh twists, most of which come from showing girls do what only boys have been allowed to do onscreen in the past. So, for example, when Bliss and her rock-band boyfriend reconcile after a series of misunderstandings, it's exactly what we expect, but newly empowered Bliss, no fool for love, makes sure the relationship is re-established on her terms, not his. And in this movie, the gross-out humor (vomiting, food fights and the like) is the newly won province of the girls, not the boys. The biggest surprise is the astonishing amount of violence that the girls wreak upon one another virtually nonstop in the many competitions that are brilliantly choreographed. They show off their bruises to one another like badges of honor. Of course, the film only is meant as an innocent entertainment, but somehow it seems more than that, like the start of some fundamental gender shift in the movies, especially when Bliss explicitly attacks her mother for trying to foist her "1950s idea of womanhood" on her. These are women who don't want to be corporate lawyers, they want to kick ass.
Though Barrymore isn't much interested in mapping the spatial complexities of roller-derby action, her shooting of the games — equal parts silly and violent — is plenty visceral for these purposes. What distinguishes "Whip It" from the sports-film pack is the director's keen focus on the minutiae of team camaraderie, as Bliss learns to body-check opponents and is gradually accepted by her elder Hurl Scouts — tough-as-nails chicks with self-styled Army-green getups and names like "Maggie Mayhem" (Kristen Wiig) and "Bloody Holly" (Zoe Bell, "Death Proof"). As coach of her own team, Barrymore has assembled a game crew of alt-film all-stars, including d.p. Robert Yeoman ("Rushmore"), editor Dylan Tichenor ("Magnolia") and ubiquitous music supervisor Randall Poster, whose soundtrack, ranging from the Ramones to the Breeders, matches the fast-rolling action hit for hit. Kevin Kavanaugh's production design captures working-class Texas marvelously, and Catherine Marie Thomas' costumes — particularly the skaters' outfits, from helmets to fishnets — are a hoot.
Along that exuberant trajectory, Whip It rights a few wrongs. First, there's proof here that Juno's Ellen Page is no mere snark in the pan. She uses her tiny frame to project vulnerability, coming alive as she flings herself into danger, shedding the starchy name Bliss Cavendar for the unlikely track moniker "Babe Ruthless." In assembling her sassy sisterhood, Barrymore has also given the criminally underused Kristen Wiig her first proper role, as a maternal roller with no-bullshit sympathies. (You wish the script hadn't fully sanded down the butch aspects of the derby scene, but apparently that's what subtext is for.) Most substantially, the film pits parental hopes against the private ambitions of youth, and somehow manages to take both sides. Marcia Gay Harden is the picture's treasure; watching her swell with concern at her daughter's choices, you understand how hard it is to let go-even when kneepads are provided.
Barrymore's sharp instincts about how to orchestrate her very different performers. She has Harden and Wiig turn their muchness down, gives Shawkat enough to do so that the many folks who never saw her on "Ar rested Development'' will feel they've made a robust comic discovery, and proves she has good taste in Wilson brothers, casting the shaggiest one, Andrew, to play the Hurl Scouts' long-suffering coach. Most crucially, Barrymore encourages Page to just let herself go. The sight of her making her way up residential streets in a pair of Barbie roller skates or screaming "Marco'' in a game of Marco Polo is simply joyful. If American movies were full of stories about girls, their dreams, their mothers, their heartbreaks, their gift for smashing their elbows into people's chins, "Whip It'' would be just another happy comedy. But Hollywood is woefully short on such stories. I anticipate the day when a movie like this stops seeming like the antidote and more like the norm.
The kind of movie that makes the term "formulaic crowd-pleaser"' seem like a good thing, "Whip It" is completely predictable from the first frame. It also is ridiculously, utterly entertaining... Barrymore infuses "Whip It" with her natural, effusive personality, and although the roller-derby sequences are choreographed more for fun and laughs than sportsmanship, she also pulls off the occasional visually striking sequence (such as a lovely scene in which Page and Pigg make out underwater). "Whip It" doesn't reinvent the cinematic wheel, but it does remind you how much fun riding that wheel can be when it's given just the right kind of spin.
On-screen, "Whip It" sags when it should skedaddle along, with Page's tart "Juno" persona submerged under an impassive blank slate; she's Little Miss Downbeat. In part, the fault lies with the script, which was written by Shauna Cross, adapting her book "Derby Girl." The small-town, teen-queen story line, which features Marcia Gay Harden infusing as much dignity as she can into Bliss's overbearing mother, feels cobbled together from a million Bible Belt caricatures, and when Bliss falls in love with a shaggy-haired rocker (Landon Pigg), "Whip It" takes yet another digressive swerve. At one point the young couple can be seen wandering around in a field looking for car keys, and it's as if Barrymore herself is out there, searching for the plot she just lost.
Barrymore's middling directorial debut, Whip It, is exactly the movie people have come to expect from her: a light, ingratiating, femme-centered ensemble piece with a positive message on empowerment and independence, with a romantic-comedy element thrown in, because she certainly knows her way around those. It's virtually impossible to hate the film, but Barrymore's presence behind the camera suggests more calculation than vision; like a lot of actors who direct, she tends to the performances, but her style never rises above bland proficiency.
[Bliss is] heck on wheels, or so we are asked to believe: The rink footage is pretty un-whippy. Even Juliette Lewis, playing the film's designated bad girl and Bliss/Babe's nemesis on the rink, is more of a cute bee-yotch than a real threat. The movie is Drew Barrymore's directorial debut (she also plays fellow Hurl Scout Smashley Simpson), and it's clear she's more attuned to grrrlishness than real athletic power: Smashley is the first to scream ''Food fight!'' and the 34-year-old actress leads the charge in kidlike mayhem.
"Whip It," the directorial debut of actress Drew Barrymore, is a sports film that uneasily straddles the divide that exists between comedy and drama. Built upon a mountain of clichés, the screenplay wallows in artificiality and, although some of the sports action sequences are well choreographed and have a ring of authenticity, nearly every scene away from the arena reeks of contrivance. The lead character isn't remotely believable and the screenplay feels like it went into production while still in the draft stage. The things Whip It does well are overshadowed by its numerous missteps.
Under Barrymore's direction, the skating action sequences are lackluster, and the story unfolds at a leaden pace. A sports-themed/female-empowerment story may have been too ambitious for a first-time filmmaker. Though there are subtly humorous moments, the derby's sense of urgency is oddly muted. Sports films centering on girls and women are worth cheering on. But Whip It lacks the charm and energy of a Bend It Like Beckham. Strangely, Barrymore's tribute to girl power lacks exuberance.
Ms. Page, rotating the "Juno" cool-nerd archetype a few degrees in the nice girl direction of Molly Ringwald in "Sixteen Candles," is smart, sharp and convincing. Bliss's pluck is appealing, but the selfishness and insensitivity that are part of any adolescent's self-defensive armory are also very much in evidence. And Bliss's mother, Brooke, may start out as a caricature of prim, pathological femininity, but over the course of the movie she grows in interesting directions. The debutante fantasies that hover over her pageant fixation are not pretensions, but rather the aspirations of a tough, hard-working woman (Brooke is a mail carrier) who is ultimately more clued-in and more sympathetic than Bliss gives her credit for being.
Barrymore's actors are, at least, having a good time, and their enthusiasm shows. Wiig is a terrific comic actress, with highly idiosyncratic timing, but in this picture, as in the recent "Extract," she proves that she can do more than play amusing oddballs: She shows glimmers of vulnerability beneath her twitchy, plainspoken demeanor. And Page is a lovely, surprisingly understated presence here. She doesn't just recycle the precocious-wiseacre character she perfected in "Juno." She and Harden, in particular, have a fine-grained rapport — together, they keep the mother-daughter plot thread from becoming mundane. Barrymore doesn't do so well in terms of overseeing the movie's action sequences. They're a bit muddled, visually: Even though one of the characters takes care to explain the rules of the sport, it's sometimes hard to tell who's coming from where, or who's winning and why. And yet some of the movie's early skating sequences — particularly the one in which Bliss suddenly realizes that she's found something she's pretty good at — capture what it's like to feel you're flying on wheels. "Whip It" may be unfocused and sprawling, but it's infectiously cheerful, too.
Earlier: 7 Things I Loved About Whip It