'Whip It' Skates By on Charm And Girl Power

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

As an actress, Drew Barrymore has grown up before our eyes, earning reservoirs of goodwill from the time of her adorable breakout performance in "E.T." to adult roles in which she's proved altogether worthy of her distinguished family name -- her appearance in HBO's "Grey Gardens" being the most recent example. As a producer, Barrymore has been by turns shrewd (the "Charlie's Angels" franchise), ho-hum ("He's Just Not That Into You") and downright visionary ("Donnie Darko"). As a director -- well, she's off to a sweet-natured, if uneven start.

"Whip It," Barrymore's directorial debut, is one of those movies that looks on paper like a no-can-lose proposition. The story of a meek teenage beauty queen named Bliss (Ellen Page) who finds her inner bad girl and true calling in an amateur Austin roller derby, the movie clearly has action, physical comedy and a healthy dose of coming-of-age sentiment going for it.

But on-screen, "Whip It" sags when it should skedaddle along, with Page's tart "Juno" persona submerged under an impassive blank slate; she's Little Miss Downbeat. In part, the fault lies with the script, which was written by Shauna Cross, adapting her book "Derby Girl." The small-town, teen-queen story line, which features Marcia Gay Harden infusing as much dignity as she can into Bliss's overbearing mother, feels cobbled together from a million Bible Belt caricatures, and when Bliss falls in love with a shaggy-haired rocker (Landon Pigg), "Whip It" takes yet another digressive swerve. At one point the young couple can be seen wandering around in a field looking for car keys, and it's as if Barrymore herself is out there, searching for the plot she just lost.

As a director, Barrymore is at her best when she's capturing the swooshing, bumptious energy of roller derby smack-downs; she also delivers a quiet, self-deprecating turn as Bliss's accident-prone teammate Smashley Simpson. The rest of the supporting performances are uneven: Kristen Wiig makes little impact as Bliss's supportive teammate, and Andrew Wilson is just as squishy as the beleaguered coach of a ragtag team of misfits and losers. Juliette Lewis, on the other hand, does her snarling best as Iron Maven, the trash-talking leader of a rival team, in a hardhearted role that in another era would have belonged to Eve Arden.

When she's on-screen, Lewis infuses "Whip It" with the dangerous punk-rock energy that Barrymore can't seem to hang on to in the rest of the movie. It's as if she wants to be liked more than respected, so she continually softens what should be a sharp-elbowed jab to the midsection. Still, there's something to be said for a movie that features a scene of tough young women proudly comparing their bruises. Arriving on the nastier heels of the horror comedy "Jennifer's Body," "Whip It" plays like that movie's more wholesome twin, delivering the same jolt of anarchic guerrilla-girl empowerment, only with a far less threatening disposition.

Whip It (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content including crude dialogue, profanity and drug material.

To watch the trailer for "Whip It," go to http://washingtonpost.com/movies.

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