Watching the Roller Derby movie "Whip It" is like spending roughly two hours with a frisky group of girls in a female empowerment camp. In the young-adult source book of the same name, the heroine, Bliss Cavendar, says in her first-person narration that "for the record, the roller-derby sisterhood is the real thing, not tainted by that fake you-go-girl, Oprah vibe you get from Noxzema commercials." She states she "really knows this" because "no one actually says 'you go, girl,' " - instead they say things like "you rock the house."
Got that? It's "you go, girl," with a makeover.
Set in the small town of Bodeen, Texas, and the more bohemian spots of Austin (the Texas roller-derby capital), the movie glides by on local color and personality, and not even strong personality. Part of what's charming about the star - Juno herself, Ellen Page - is the furtiveness of her character. Bliss succeeds at Roller Derby not just because she loves it, but also because it answers her needs to toughen up. Under the thumb of her mom, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), who's a beauty-pageant stage mother and postal worker, Bliss has been looking for more social stimulation than she gets serving the clientele at the Oink Joint or suffering the taunts of her high school's in crowd.
Basically, like the book, the movie delivers all the "you go, girl" you can take with a rougher, alt-rock ambience than Oprah or Noxzema. Drew Barrymore, in her feature debut as a director (she previously filmed a TV documentary), showcases endearing performances from Page as the increasingly rebellious Bliss and Alia Shawkat as her best friend, the smart, playful and riotously frustrated Pash.
It might be expected that the ever-youthful Barrymore, still just 34, would display a deft touch with her youthful leads. But Barrymore also gets a breakthrough turn from Kristin Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, who juggles dedication to the derby with utter devotion to her young son. Wiig has always been a delightful and inventive entertainer; here, for the first time, she's a surprising human being. When she teaches Bliss that it's possible to find a new family like their roller-derby team, "The Hurl Scouts," without throwing the old one away, it registers as a gritty piece of folk wisdom, not a sappy life lesson.
Although the Hurl Scouts rename Bliss "Babe Ruthless," she never quite lives up to the Ruthless part of the title. As the movie goes on, she falls for an Austin musician. She confronts her discount furniture-salesman father, Earl (Daniel Stern), over his turtle-like approach to conflict with her mother. And Bliss even tries to persuade her mother that her beauty didn't fade with the memories of her own pageants, circa 1981.
Barrymore intersperses all these half-jocular, half-earnest scenes with lots of rock-'em-sock-'em on the roller rinks. But the movie never builds any momentum. It seems less like the work of a director with a vision than a filmmaker who just wants to have fun.
If you're looking for good company, you'll get it. I loved a moment when Page and Shawkat began improvising a song and dance called "Bodeen" to the tune of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." And Juliette Lewis has obviously been hungering to play a derby brute all her life. But the movie ended just in time. Any more of it, and I'd have been crying uncle. Or maybe, given the grrrl-power of it all, crying aunt. This is one supposedly contrarian film that rouses the counter-contrarian in you.
Afterward, I found myself hankering for a trip to the Oink Joint, where a giant barbecue sandwich called the Squealer is free if consumed within three minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material)
Running time: 1:51
Starring Ellen Page (Bliss Cavendar), Kristen Wiig (Maggie Mayhem) and Drew Barrymore (Smashley Simpson). A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Directed by Drew Barrymore.