Whip It's good humor skates past sports cliches

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut offers a winning coming-of-age story

Drew Barrymore usually radiates high spirits and good cheer on screen, so it makes sense that her directorial debut, Whip It, would display the same virtues. In fact, Barrymore’s film shows more skill and subtlety than she often reveals in her acting, which comes as a particular surprise in a coming-of-age tale full of roller derby players with names such as Iron Maven and Maggie Mayhem.

Juno’s Ellen Page plays Bliss, a meek high schooler in a small Texas town who's forced by her mother to compete in social events like the Blue Bonnet Pageant. Bliss finds herself beguiled when she sees three bohemian chicks on roller skates glide into a vintage clothing shop and hand out fliers for a roller derby match. Thrilled by the sight of uninhibited women brawling and working the crowd, Bliss tries out for and joins the Hurl Scouts. She's soon skating alongside supportive tough cookies played by Kristen Wiig, singer Eve, and stuntwoman-turned actress Zoe Bell. Barrymore gives herself the comic relief role as sketchily drawn dum-dum Smashley Simpson.

As Babe Ruthless, petite Page looks kind of like a leaf fluttering in the wake of the more substantial ladies, but we accept that she finds her niche as a high-scoring “jammer.” It’s kind of like the way Harry Potter finds an innate talent for catching the Golden Snitch the first time he straddles a broomstick. Whip It touches on plenty of sports movie clichés, painting the Hurl Scouts as undisciplined underdogs taunted by a bullying rival (Juliette Lewis, tearing into her role with gusto). Inevitably, the Big Match turns out to be the same night as the Big Pageant.

Fortunately, Shauna Cross' script (based on her novel Derby Girl) gets the details right about small towns, roller derby and the awesomeness of Austin, Texas. Unlike many films based on unusual sports, Whip It adequately explains the rules and reveals the action in comprehensible visual terms.

The secret weapon in Whip It’s playbook turns out to be its generosity of spirit: It’s not about demonizing the antagonists. Bliss’ mom, Brooke (Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden), is a former pageant winner turned suffocating stage mother. Despite her elegance at the social occasions, she’s not an upper-class harpy. Brooke works as a mail carrier in a decidedly unfeminine uniform and only wants to give her daughter the best possible start in life. Barrymore fills the film with grace notes that suggest the characters like each other even amid painful arguments.

Many sports movies pay lip service to the idea that “winning isn’t everything,” but Whip It genuinely values things like teamwork and self-respect over high scores or even landing a boyfriend. Plus, it makes roller derby look like an empowering rush, kind of like Fight Club for chicks in fishnets and eyeliner.