When Drew Barrymore decides to call her movie “Whip It,” you might think you’re in for some kind of cage-fighting, girl-powered “Animal House.” And while you do get the fishnets, food fights, broken bones and bloody noses, there are many sly satisfactions to be found in Barrymore’s smartly done directing debut.
Essentially, the film is a chicks-on-skates/coming-of-age/sports-drama/comedy/feminist polemic set in the racy world of roller derby. If it sounds as if it would be easy to lose your footing in all of that, it is. And on occasion Barrymore does, and not just because the floors are slick.
But for the most part, the 34-year-old Barrymore, with much of her life spent in front of the camera and more than a few impressive producing credits already in the bank, proves steady on her feet, able to handle curves and straightaways with equal grace.
“Whip It” stars Ellen Page as Bliss, a teenager unhappily stuck in Bodeen, Texas, best known for a giant barbecue sandwich called the Squealer, served at the inglorious Oink Joint, where Bliss works. She’s got a take-no-prisoners, beauty pageant-obsessed mom in Marcia Gay Harden, an ex-football player dad (Daniel Stern, reminding us of his easy way with humor) who prefers the bench and a few beers in this woman’s world, and a best friend in Pash (Alia Shawkat), who’s planning an Ivy League escape from their soul-destroying small town.
An unfortunate blue-hair incident on the pageant circuit and a mother-daughter shopping trip to nearby Austin clue us in on the growing family friction that makes Bliss’ nickname -- Blister -- far more fitting. Expectations are such a burden in high school.
The story is set in the indie-punk derby renaissance that began in 2000 in Austin and is based on the semiautobiographical novel by Shauna Cross, who also wrote the screenplay. Bliss, in the middle of an identity crisis, stumbles upon two things she loves: the derby and an alternative rocker named Oliver (the very engaging singer-songwriter Landon Pigg). Both will cause her pain; one will seriously disappoint her.
Soon enough our young teen is torn between the grunge-infused roller derby of her dreams and the Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant of her mother’s. Luckily for Bliss, that derby playbook is jammed with life lessons, particularly for underdogs; in Bliss’ case, that would be the Hurl Scouts -- think tough cookies in green uniforms that are cut very short and very tight; no former Brownies here.
What makes “Whip It” a blast is the action in the rink. What gives “Whip It” heart is the pathos, pain and mettle-testing elements that accompany any serious athletic competition. It doesn’t hurt that its diminutive star is surprisingly athletic and agile on the track. “I’m Canadian. I skate,” Page has said.
Page, whose turn as the preternaturally pragmatic pregnant teen looking for an adoptive couple in “Juno” earned her an Oscar nomination, once again plays teenage angst with an almost tactile nuance here. Watching her elbow her way through blockers, hip check competitors into the rails and jump fallen bodies at top speed makes it easy to believe that Bliss (and Page) is having the time of her life. (The cast went to roller-derby boot camp and handled most of its own skating and falling.)
That it’s virtually impossible for the apple-cheeked actress to look seriously threatening is something the film has some fun with -- “Give us your look,” her teammates tease at one point after Bliss, skating as “Babe Ruthless,” becomes the season’s poster girl.
In fact, “fun” seems to be the film’s guiding principle. Barrymore allows herself on the rink now and then as a ditzy, schizzy skater named Smashley Simpson, who mainly falls spectacularly. Serial comics abound, including Jimmy Fallon and Kristen Wiig. Juliette Lewis is terrific as Page’s scenery-chewing nemesis. Topping it off, there are real derby girls too -- Kristen “Krissy Krash” Adolfi and Rachel “Iron Maiven” Piplica.
Make no mistake, this is no deep treatise on female athletes -- rent “Million Dollar Baby” or “Personal Best” for that. Instead, Barrymore has chosen to go broad -- packing “Whip It” with tough, sarcastic chicks willing to totally commit to Maggie Mayhem’s “be your own hero” mantra. They are, to put it bluntly, hell on wheels . . . exactly what happens when the skate fits.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, including crude dialogue, language and drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release