In Theaters: Whip It
Who knew what to expect from Drew Barrymore after He's Just Not That Into You, a feminist snuff flick released earlier this year that Barrymore executive produced and in which she had a sort of boutique role. While her instincts as a producer are erratic, having fastened her to everything from Donnie Darko to Duplex, for a lot of Drew-watchers, He's Just Not That Into You was a dealbreaker; for years we have been watching her amass enough power to get interesting projects made, and waiting for her to use that power to further what seemed like a progressive agenda. Instead we got a pack of beautiful, sniveling grown women jockeying for pole position in one of the most painfully retro films of the year; had I slumped any further in my seat I would have been licking Skittles goo off the floor. Alas, it seemed Barrymore the businesswoman/free-spirited artist had lost to Barrymore the boy-crazy, seriously uncool ditz in the battle for aesthetic supremacy.
After wrestling back some favor with by far her best performance to date as Little Edie in the HBO production of Grey Gardens, Barrymore resurfaces with Whip It, her adaptation of Shauna Cross's young adult novel, Derby Girl. It is the actress's directorial debut, and the choice speaks volumes: the story of Bliss Cavendar, a small town Texan who rejects the debutante circuit her mother is intent on in favor of the roller derby scene she discovers during a trip to Austin, combines Barrymore's purported interest in girl power narratives and much more evident interest in boy-catching eyeliner, cute boys with really cool haircuts, and posing as a sort of rock and roll rebel -- which boys love, by the way! Which would come out on top this time?
Well, it's a wash -- a sweaty, funny, highly entertaining wash. Ellen Page, the pride of Halifax, plays Bliss as a sort of introvert-in-waiting, expanding on the subtleties she brought to her potentially one-note lead role in Juno. After an opening sequence in which we see Bliss appeasing her mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden) by taking her place among a room of white-gowned debs obediently repeating truisms about their hopes and dreams, Barrymore quickly moves the story into derby mode: Bliss tries out for the league on a lark, drawn in by the admittedly alluring spectacle of three girls gliding into an Austin thrift shop to drop off some flyers. Cross, who also wrote the script, gets some classic one-liners into the film's mix: "I give my parents straight A's, I get freedom," says Bliss's best friend (played by Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat), as she jacks the family car for some out-of-town mischief. "I'm Bliss, but I could change that," Bliss says to Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), knees practically clanging in the face of the Hurl Scouts' collective aura of badassery.
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