Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It,” is a little like her on-screen persona — tough but girlish, with a deep sense of vulnerability floating just under the hard surface. Those qualities are evidenced not just in the film, but also in the performance of its star — not Miss Barrymore, who takes a supporting role — but “Juno” Oscar nominee Ellen Page.
Miss Page is Bliss Cavendar, a slightly rebellious high school student in Bodeen, Texas. She tries to please her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) by entering the beauty pageants the older woman won when young, but can’t help but ruin her chances by, for example, showing up with blue hair. Bliss finds bliss when she sneaks to nearby Austin with a friend one night to see her first roller derby. The derby girls’ bad-girl grace mesmerizes the misfit. “You’re my new heroes,” she says on walking past derby girl Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig). Maggie urges her to be her own hero — by trying out for the team. The directionless girl finally has a purpose. She makes the team, thanks to long hours of practice and a few fibs. She tells her parents she’ll be out taking an SAT class and tells her new teammates she’s the required 18 years of age.
The great fun of the film is in watching those girls go. There are some awfully cool moves here, ably performed by Miss Page’s all-star teammates: Miss Barrymore as Smashly Simpson, Eve as Rosa Sparks, Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly. (Bliss’ stage name is Babe Ruthless.)
The standout, though, is the villain: Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven on the rival team the Holy Rollers. Announcer Johnny Rocket (Jimmy Fallon) says of the Rollers, “I’m talking about girls so bad, even God couldn’t keep them in line.” Iron Maven was the derby’s star before the attractive and talented Bliss came along. Miss Lewis is absolutely delicious as a bad girl — where has she been? Touring in support of her musical career, perhaps, but her swagger belongs on bigger screens.
The story is not particularly original, but the milieu is, and so is the energy in this ode to girl power. There is a male presence: Daniel Stern is sympathetic as Bliss’ well-meaning father, while Andrew Wilson is a highlight as the team’s much-put-upon coach. “There’s a lot more to derby than fishnets and picking out a tough name,” he tells the girls, a lesson Bliss eventually takes to heart. Though not before telling more lies and getting involved with an older boy, an appealing, on-the-rise musician played by real musician Landon Pigg.
Miss Barrymore’s debut has a few false notes — such as the product placement of the Cover Girl mascara Lash Blast that she promotes. As a whole, though, this is a promising debut from a young woman who has spent her life in Hollywood and likely has many more tales to tell of finding one’s own voice.
TITLE: “Whip It”
RATING: PG-13 (sexual content, including crude dialogue, language and drug material)
CREDITS: Directed by Drew Barrymore. Written by Shauna Cross based on her novel “Derby Girl.”
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
WEB SITE: foxsearchlight.com/whipit
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS