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Drew Barrymore has spent decades in front of the camera.
Whip It, Barrymore's directorial debut, proves the actress is just as comfortable behind it.
Based on the 2007 novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, who also wrote the screenplay, Whip It is a warm indie comedy guided with a sure hand by Barrymore. It's blessed with strong performances and a story that's not as predictable as you think.
Anchoring the cast is Juno's Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a high school indie-rock misfit who doesn't mesh with the residents of Bodeen, the small Texas town in which they live. Bliss' life isn't made any easier by her mother, Brooke Cavendar (Marcia Gay Harden), who enrolls her in beauty pageants even though the girl would rather wear black combat boots than high heels. Bliss' rebellion against participating in the pageants has led to a large rift with her mother.
Commiserating with her is best-pal Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat). They're in the same grade, work as waitresses in the same greasy spoon, and share the same dream of escaping Bodeen for the cultural buffet of nearby Austin.
After discovering a female roller-derby game in a back alley of Austin, Bliss and Pash (only in indie films are characters named Bliss and Pash) become instant fans of the sport. Bliss takes her passion a step further: encouraged by a member of the Hurl Scouts, a down-on-its-luck roller-derby team, Bliss tries out for the team and to her surprise - although certainly not ours - she makes it. Being 17, she is too young to join the league, and she certainly looks it, but this being a low-rent sport, no one bothers to check her ID.
As a Hurl Scout, Bliss finally finds a place where she belongs. Tentative at first on and off the roller track, she becomes the team's star player and forges friendships with her teammates, including Maggie Mayhem (Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig) and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). She falls for an indie rock band singer named Oliver (Landon Pigg, who just released an album of his own, "The Boy Who Never"). She even finds common ground with her father, Earl (Daniel Stern), a football fanatic who loves his daughter but doesn't know how to bond with her.
Then Bliss' dream of a life turns nightmarish. Her on-the-track roller-derby nemesis, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), threatens to expose the lie about her age. Her impossibly perfect relationship with Oliver withers after he leaves Austin for a mini-tour with his band. Her parents discover her secret life as a roller-derby star. And she and Pash have a falling out. All this just as the Hurl Scouts have emerged from laughingstock of the league to playing for the championship.
By now if it seems Whip It is sailing dangerously close to plot contrivances, know that the comedy-drama mostly steers clear of such conventions and settles on a course that yields some surprises, the biggest of which is the heart of the movie.
Whip It's chumps-to-champs tale is straight out of the playbook from The Bad News Bears, but the film's sports theme is secondary to what the movie is really about: a realistic examination of the emotional complexities of the mother-daughter relationship.
Barrymore and her mother, Jaid, famously had a falling out years ago, and the pair no longer speak. The actress has said she was attracted to the project by the many parallels in the sometimes contentious, often painful relationship of Brooke and Bliss. As director, Barrymore gives Page and Harden the freedom to explore the nuances of their characters' fragile relationship, lending authenticity that resonates beyond the screen.
Is Whip It a mea culpa from Barrymore to her mother? Perhaps; only Barrymore can say. But Whip It is a good movie from a good actress and now a promising director.
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