For her first directorial effort, actress Drew Barrymore picked a good project. Whip It is a ton of fun -- a sweet coming-of-age film with lots of heart, and a benign girl-power vibe that never takes itself too seriously. You can tell that this is probably the kind of movie Barrymore herself would have liked to see when she was 17 -- and probably for a lot of us, our inner 17-year-olds will be just as happy.
The story focuses on the teenage Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), an odd girl out in the pageant scene of her one-stoplight town of Bodine, TX. A pensive girl with a penchant for semi-ironic vintage T-shirts, Bliss is just approaching the age where it becomes clear that her newly forming identity doesn't quite jive with the interests of her childhood. Of course, the whole beauty pageant thing is mostly the influence of her mom (Marcia Gay Harden), who is sort of tightly wound, but we know only foists this ridiculous pastime on her daughter because it offers scholarships, credentials, and the chance to escape the Sisyphean struggle just to scrape by of lower-middle-class life.
Nonetheless, when Bliss catches a bewitching glimpse of some roller-derby chicks during one of those crucial first trips to a vintage shop (mom awkwardly in tow, eagerly buying that first pair of combat boots), she's instantly hooked on the whole scene. A few white lies later, Bliss is attending a match, trying out for the team, and unearthing an array of unexpected aptitudes. Part of what makes this process so relatable is that Page doesn't play her character as the spunky firecracker we know from Juno -- Bliss is quiet and unsure, so when she discovers her toughness on the track, her rightful place among her new friends, and the confidence not to let a single dumb boy ruin her life, we're right there with her.
Whip It also benefits from good construction, and a delightful collection of supporting players, like Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Eve, Juliette Lewis, and Barrymore herself in a noticeably tiny role. The surrounding cast help to decorate the story with an idea or two about growing up and finding something you're good at. But, once again, the film never takes a heavy-handed approach -- this isn't high art, and it isn't trying to be. Assuming that what Whip It does strive for is a place somewhere near the top tier of lovable teen movies, it's a categorical success.