Drew Barrymore has always excelled at keeping secrets--E.T. in the closet, a certain pyrokinetic ability, Adam Sandler's ability to love--but her feature directorial debut may be her best-kept one yet. The woman can make a helluva movie. Whip It is an emotionally honest feminist switcheroo with an endearingly gawky sense of humor and a delicate mother-daughter teen tale all wrapped up in genuinely exciting derby sequences that put Rollerball to shame.
Juno's Ellen Page stars as Bliss, a small-town tomboy working as a waitress who, with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, emerging from her Arrested Development as a beautiful young woman), discovers the pugilistic joy of roller derby. After a practice montage, Bliss is ready for the big leagues and quickly emerges as a "poster child" for the vaguely illegal sport. She's given the empowered moniker "Babe Ruthless."
Because the league plays a bus ride away in Austin, Tex., Bliss and Pash naturally fall for the nearest hipster musicians. In Barrymore's first role-reversal trick, she subtly points out that the girls are the hard-partying, quick-to-fight, blood-spitting dominators in their relationships, while the guys and their skinny jeans, expensive haircuts, and feminized gaits are relegated to cheerleader status.
Off the rink, Bliss goes along with her mother's (a wonderful Marcia Gay Harden, thankfully avoiding caricature) beauty-pageant kick, playing dress up and giving pat answers to questions such as, "Who would you most like to have dinner with?" to avoid hurting her mother's feelings. Bliss' father, the lone male of the house, is secretly out of work and valiantly keeps a stoic face on even when his neighbor posts signs in his yard proclaiming the great football heroics of the neighbor's two sons. Bliss keeps his secrets without a thought and indulges him by feigning interest in whatever NFL game is on TV.
As a character, Bliss couldn't be farther away from Juno. She has good taste in music, but doesn't wear it as a badge. She loses her virginity in a magical underwater sequence, but she never waves it in Pash's face. She speaks and plays from the heart and, lucky for her, she's got a tough one.
Whip It is based on and adapted by Shauna "Maggie Mayhem" Cross from her own novel Derby Girl, which is rooted in her own experiences with the sport. But the star of the movie is Barrymore, who also has a supporting role as Smashley Simpson, the peppy girl who takes the hardest hits. Behind the camera, she stocks Whip It with surprising yet powerful players: Juliette Lewis, as the villain, seems born to play the badass and Andrew Wilson, Luke's brother, can steal a scene with the smallest gestures. Barrymore nails the big derby action with clarity, as well as the intimate moments with precision, elevating an already captivating story to a deeply human level.