In a year when such toxic Hollywood movies as “The Ugly Truth,” “All About Steve” and “Post Grad” have popped up like poisonous mushrooms filled with venomously misogynist messages for their female viewership, it’s something close to thrilling to see “Whip It,” a fun female-empowerment movie that marks an impressively crowd-pleasing directorial debut for Drew Barrymore. (Having succeeded not only as an actress but also as a producer, she can now officially be considered a triple threat.)
It’s a movie about pursuing your dreams, playing in the big game, stepping off the path your parents have created for you, putting your friends before your lovers and learning when and where to elbow anyone who gets in your way.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss, a teen in small-town Texas (oddly, the film was shot in Michigan) who competes in beauty pageants at the behest of Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), her steel magnolia of a mother. Despite the occasional protest — like dying her hair blue before one competition — Bliss is a good girl who works hard in school and at her waitressing gig at the local barbecue joint.
On a shopping trip to Austin, Bliss picks up a flyer for the local roller derby and convinces her friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”) to drive her. One look at the strong, independent tattooed women battling their way around the track on skates, and Bliss is hooked. On the suggestion of Hurl Scouts team captain Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bliss returns the following week — via the senior citizens Bingo bus — to try out. Despite not having skated in years, Bliss is the fastest girl out there, and thus her derby alter ego, Babe Ruthless, is born.
Naturally, Bliss has to keep her mom and dad (Daniel Stern) from finding out what she’s doing while also keeping the Hurl Scouts from finding out that she’s only 17. And then floppy-haired indie-rock boy Oliver (Landon Pigg) enters the equation to complicate matters even further.
One of the many smart moves made by Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross (adapting her novel) is to avoid having obvious villains. Brooke has her reasons for encouraging Bliss to do the pageants — without being a one-dimensional stage mom — just as rival derby-er Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, having a blast playing a meanie) has her reasons for resenting young Bliss’ meteoric rise in the league. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where a teenager tells off her strict parents — only to have them later discuss the argument, with both sides admitting where they were wrong.
With the exception of Andrew Wilson’s intense coach, most of the male performances are sort of negligible. (I never bought Stern as a Texan for one second.) But the women shine, from Page’s decidedly un-Juno-like blossoming into a fierce athlete to the hilarious and occasionally moving supporting performances by Wiig, Shawkat, Lewis, Barrymore and the always-luminescent Zoë Bell.
But the real star here is Harden, a Lone Star State native who has had a run of underwhelming movie and TV opportunities in the wake of her best supporting actress Oscar win for “Pollock.” (Off-screen, at least, she’s been knocking ’em dead on Broadway in “God of Carnage.”) “Whip It” gives her a doozy of a role, loaded with contradictions and regrets and love and resentments, and Harden makes Brooke into an indelible character. In a film that boasts a talented team of actors, Harden’s the MVP.
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