“Whip It,” Drew Barrymore’s 111-minute rush of roller-derby gusto, is a Hollywood formula picture that benefits immensely from the positive spirit that actor-turned-director Barrymore infuses into every swerve, tumble and beer session experienced by her fun-loving fishnet-clad protagonists.
There’s surely enough ebullience in this girl-power actioner to prompt frequent viewer smiles.
Unfortunately, though, that’s not quite enough to compensate for the cliched scenarios and superficial storytelling that also characterize this movie. A food fight is no less unfunny when it is girls who are applying the ketchup.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss, a 17-year-old Texas small-towner whose blue-hair job wins no trophies on the beauty-pageant circuit into which her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), has pushed her.
Inspired by a flier containing photos of punky-looking women with tattoos, Bliss travels to Austin to watch a roller derby. Hooked, she tries out and wins a spot on the Hurl Scouts team. She’s reborn as speedy skater Babe Ruthless.
The plot builds around two lies told by Bliss, who claims to be of legal age on the team application form and deceives her mother and her sweeter-tempered dad (Daniel Stern) into cluelessness about her derby activities.
Among other challenges, she damages her friendship with best pal Posh (Alia Shawkat) and falls for an undeserving indie rocker (Landon Pigg).
Roller-derby leagues attract women ranging from nurses to bankers to full-time moms, and when you consider the mosaic of stories that it might have presented, the film is maddeningly superficial.
Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross (adapting her novel) barely tell us who these women are beneath their amusing monikers.
Rather, we get stock tediousness like the above-mentioned chow-hurling passage and a shallowly presented rivalry between fresh-faced Bliss and veteran tough chick Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). Naturally, their championship match-up will take place on the same day as the Blue Bonnet beauty pageant.
Yet it’s impossible to dislike this movie overall. Barrymore, as joyful behind the camera as in front of it, keeps the action brisk and robust. Her scenes of awesome female camaraderie have contagious spark.
And Page, playing it bright instead of “Juno”-style brainy, is a force on both the athletic and emotional fronts. Even when the story fails her, she delights with her portrayal of a young woman’s blossoming.
The cast also includes an underused Kristen Wiig as team captain Maggie Mayhem, Andrew Wilson as the women’s ineffective coach and Barrymore herself as accident-prone Smashley Simpson.
Whip It ??½
Starring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Alia Shawkat, Kristen Wiig
Written by Shauna Cross
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Running time 1 hour 41 minutes