Whip It suffers the opposite of Zombieland’s concern: Its subject matter may not be well-trodden, but its execution is riddled with a few too many clichés. Still, Drew Barrymore’s much-hyped directorial debut about a meek girl’s discovery of roller derby is sweet and—more important—sufficiently rescues itself in the third act to stand as a bow Barrymore can be proud of.
Ellen Page leaves behind her Juno quipsterhood to play Bliss, a 17-year-old waitress living in rural Texas who’s a little bit lost and a lot pressured by her conservative mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to follow in the latter’s footsteps and use beauty pageants to give her a boost in life. Bliss, thus far always the good girl with glasses, sullenly lets herself be dressed in custom gowns and judged.
But then she finds a flier advertising a roller-derby match in Austin. Begging her best friend and fellow Oink Joint server, Pash (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), to go with her, Bliss tells her parents they’re headed to a local football game and hightails it to the big city. At the competition, Bliss falls—for both a cute guy and the ferocious sport itself. Soon she’s crashing all over a warehouse rink during practices with the hapless Hurl Scouts and ditching her glasses in favor of contacts and eyeliner. Surprise—she’s a beaut! And a natural at the game, giving the Scouts a shot at victory against the champion Holy Rollers.
For a film about such a vicious sport, Whip It often feels inert. It’s rarely all that exciting, aside from Bliss’ blossoming—Page is lovely here and infuses her character with light. And despite its comedic tone, it’s not all that funny, either. Supporting cast members such as Kristen Wiig, Andrew Wilson (brother to Luke and Owen), Jimmy Fallon, and even Barrymore herself offer chuckles at best; Zoe Bell, famed stuntwoman, meanwhile, looks like a scarily muscular Kate Hudson, and Juliette Lewis wears her snarling Licks persona as the Holy Rollers’ star and Bliss’ nemesis. Barrymore tries to inject some life with a food fight (do people really do that?) and, when the newly confident Bliss gets her man, an underwater make-out scene (people definitely don’t do that, right?). Yawn.
A bigger script problem is that Bliss’ parents disappear entirely for much of the movie. At first, lying to them to get out of the house is a major deal, but then she’s at games and practices and parties without excuses or guilt. When the story eventually returns to the mother-daughter relationship, the film is at its most engaging: Wiig’s single mom nudges Bliss to look at things from a new perspective, and as the lines of communication between the derby queen and her mother truly open, the outcome is honest, touching, and a little sad: Whip It starts off as a tale about letting loose but ends up as one about letting go.