Drew Barrymore's directing debut, Whip It, based on a screenplay about women's roller derby by Shauna Cross, teems with girl-power spirit and exudes an all-encompassing benevolence. These girls just want to have fun, even though their pleasure involves getting banged up to the roar of hot metal thunder beneath their feet.
As the central character, Bliss Cavendar, Ellen Page demonstrates that her breakout performance in Juno was no fluke. Bliss' story about slipping away from her sleepy Texas town and her beauty-pageant-mad mother (Marcia Gay Harden) for the rink contains more details than are sometimes necessary, but they help make her journey believable. A subplot regarding a love interest is pure window dressing, though.
The heart of the movie belongs to the Austin, Texas roller league, whose members play without regard to the outcome. They return for the thrill of the moment - and one another's company. Barrymore's casting choices are intrinsic to the success of the film. Juliette Lewis, under her rink name Iron Maven, hasn't had this meaty a role in maybe 15 years, while Andrew Wilson as the team's shaggy male coach is a hoot to watch. Harden and Daniel Stern, as Bliss' parents, create fleshed-out characters instead of the paper tigers that grownups usually are in teens' stories.
Also smart on Barrymore's part was snagging Robert D. Yoeman (Rushmore) for her director of photography and Dylan Tichenor (Magnolia) as her editor, both of whom help lend the film a crisp look that focuses on the "contact" part of the sport instead of the overall game. Barrymore is generous toward her actors and keeps her own endearing performance as klutzy Smashley Simpson in the background.
Whip It wants to assure parents that they should not fear their daughters when they turn their interest in becoming Miss Texas into being Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig's rink name). Furthermore, Whip It reminds us that although new family allegiances will be formed once a girl leaves home, that doesn't necessarily mean she has to leave the old family behind. That lesson may carry more weight if you're a Barrymore.