Drew Barrymore has done herself proud. Her first directorial effort, Whip It, is a highly entertaining film that draws on several time-worn ingredients (coming of age, a fish out of water) and blend them with a female-empowerment theme to make something that’s fresh and fun. Barrymore first great choice was casting Ellen Page, fresh from Juno, to play the leading character, a high-school girl who grimly endures her mother’s insistence that she enter beauty pageants—until she finds a way to break free. Because the sport of roller derby is as foreign to her as it is to some of us in the audience, we share her gradual indoctrination to this unusual world and its lively denizens. By the time the film is over, we’re rooting for her, both on and off the track.
Whip It touches on a number of relatable themes, including the often-painful process of leaving old friends behind when you discover a new passion. But what I like most about Shauna Cross’ screenplay (adapted from her young-adult novel Derby Girl) is that it has a big heart. There are no real villains, just wrong-headed people who need to be enlightened, including Page’s mother (played by the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden) and a tough girl on the opposing team (Juliette Lewis) who’s determined to give Page as much grief as possible. Other supporting roles are well written and equally well played, by Alia Shawkat, Kristen Wiig, Andrew Wilson, Jimmy Fallon, Landon Pigg, Daniel Stern, and Barrymore herself, as one of Page’s flakier teammates.
Unlike some actor-directors, Barrymore seems determined to give herself as little screen time as possible, deliberately cutting away from shots involving her lest anyone think of the film as a vanity project. She needn’t have worried: she’s delivered the goods.