September 17, 2009 / 12:39 AM / 10 years ago

"Whip It" remarkable directing debut for Barrymore

Director and cast member Drew Barrymore attends a news conference for "Whip It" during the 34th Toronto International Film Festival on September 15, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - With “Whip It,” her remarkable debut as a director, Drew Barrymore proves that she is just as perky, quirky and talented behind the camera as in front of it.

Set in the exciting but less-familiar world of women’s roller-derby racing, the film, which also stars the ever-delightful Ellen Page in her first role since “Juno,” should perform exceptionally well for Fox Searchlight domestically and perhaps do even better overseas, given its exotic setting.

The fact that “Whip It” clicks on so many levels — heartwarming family story, rough-and-tumble display of grrl power and a secondary but tender and convincing romance — also can’t hurt. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens October 2.

Page is Bliss Cavendar, a pretty, intelligent girl from small-town Texas who longs for the freedom that beckons from the hip big city of Austin. Her mail-carrier mother (Marcia Gay Harden) entertains dreams of her carrying off huge trophies in local beauty pageants, and her Milquetoast father hides out watching football games to avoid his wife’s wrath. One day, Bliss happens upon some fliers advertising an all-girl roller derby, and she’s hooked. Knowing that her loving but strait-laced parents would never allow her to involve herself in such a dangerous, working-class and dead-end activity, she begins leading a double life that, after lots of complications, finally catches up with her. It probably won’t be much of a spoiler if it’s revealed that everything turns out well in the end.

This familiar yet simultaneously different heartwarming tale of misunderstandings, smothering love and ultimate triumph is loaded with cliches, as might be expected. But somehow writer Shauna Cross (adapting from her novel) manages to inflect the story with fresh twists, most of which come from showing girls do what only boys have been allowed to do onscreen in the past.

So, for example, when Bliss and her rock-band boyfriend reconcile after a series of misunderstandings, it’s exactly what we expect, but newly empowered Bliss, no fool for love, makes sure the relationship is re-established on her terms, not his. And in this movie, the gross-out humor (vomiting, food fights and the like) is the newly won province of the girls, not the boys. The biggest surprise is the astonishing amount of violence that the girls wreak upon one another virtually nonstop in the many competitions that are brilliantly choreographed. They show off their bruises to one another like badges of honor. Of course, the film only is meant as an innocent entertainment, but somehow it seems more than that, like the start of some fundamental gender shift in the movies, especially when Bliss explicitly attacks her mother for trying to foist her “1950s idea of womanhood” on her. These are women who don’t want to be corporate lawyers, they want to kick ass.

Page, whose derby moniker is Babe Ruthless, is predictably adorable and somehow seems more like a real person than the sometimes cartoonish, overly quippy smart-aleck she memorably played in “Juno.” The acting is top notch throughout, again proving the old saw about actors who turn director being particularly attuned to performance. Barrymore and Juliette Lewis are especially delightful.

Editing by DGoodman at Reuters

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