The whip is a slingshot-type maneuver in roller derby, where you're flung by a teammate straight into traffic and, with luck, past it. Raquel Welch got whipped a time or two in the 1972 vehicle "Kansas City Bomber," but in that film roller derby wasn't about athletic prowess or female empowerment; it was just an excuse for shoving Welch into one ogled, manhandled situation after another.
"Whip It" is different. It's not designed primarily for the heterosexual male gaze (though it's certainly fun for both genders and all persuasions). Drew Barrymore's feature directorial debut runs on an easygoing mixture of cliches and grrrl-power or, rather, younnnng-womannn power, and its cast operates on a very high hangout factor, meaning just that: They're good company. (It's great to see Kristen Wiig in more than a novelty role, for starters.) In placing its young heroine, played by Ellen Page ("Juno"), in a death match between the world of teen beauty pageants and roller derby competition, the film favors teenagers being true to their ferocious butt-kicking selves. The alternative, as Page's Bliss Cavendar says to her mother at a notably ham-fisted moment, buys into a "psychotic idea of '50s womanhood."
The movie is set in Bodeen, a fictional flyspeck burg, and Austin, Texas, though it was shot mostly in Michigan. Only a handful of the performers attempt a dialect; the exceptions include Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern as Bliss' parents, who play it so Texan it's as if nobody else needed to be.
Very consciously, as guided by Shauna Cross' script, taken from her 2007 novel "Derby Girl," Page makes a break from the hyper-quippy rhythm demanded by "Juno." Bliss is a reluctant pageant participant following her mom's design for living at story's outset. On a shopping trip to Austin with her younger sister, Bliss meets a fiercely alluring gang of roller derby queens, teammates on the Hurl Scouts. They're like smash-and-grab versions of the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Bliss loses herself in their world in a matter of seconds.
Bliss sneaks off to team tryouts, and though she's small, she's also promisingly fast and willing to lie about her underage status. The script labors to keep her double life a secret on the home front. Alia Shawkat, very good, plays Bliss' best friend. At one point they're the subject of lesbian speculation by the resident high school mean girl; though without making any big deal of it, the entire movie floats on a crypto-Sapphic vibe, where the men, for once, aren't running the show.
That's the subtext. The surface text arranges a coming-of-age affair between Bliss and a musician (Landon Pigg, an amiable non-actor). I could've done without the underwater ballet that signifies their union, but it's a small matter. For every clunky or conventional scene, there's a looser, better one. Wiig, one of the screen's most welcome character actors, portrays Bliss' mentor-in-chief, and like Page and Barrymore, she does a pretty impressive amount of her own skating. Barrymore produced as well as directed the film, saving a choice supporting role for herself, that of Smashley Simpson, the roughest customer on the team. The names are lovely: Bliss' performance handle is Babe Ruthless, and there's mention of someone who goes by Jabba the Slut.
Barrymore's direction is generous to a fault, and there are times when you wish "Whip It" simply moved faster, on and off the track. It succeeds because of the emotional rather than comic payoffs, such as a late scene between Page and Harden, where daughter and mother, after a rough patch, hit on an unexpectedly serious subject. These two pros act the daylights out of the material in the nicest way, and they make synthetic goods feel like silk. The way Page's Bliss walks around in a daze, newly blossoming, ever-watchful and barely able to process what's hit her, she captures that first-love sensation of being underwater -- without the ballet.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun