Ellen Page plays Bliss, a 17-year-old girl from Bodeen, Texas who is mostly unhappy and wildly unpopular, a situation not helped by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her insistence on entering Bliss into beauty pageants. But one day, while on a shopping trip in nearby Austin, she spots a brigade of tough girls on roller skates, distributing flyers for the local roller derby league. Fascinated, Bliss drags her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to a match and immediately decides that this is what she wants to do. She digs out her Barbie roller skates, lies about her age, and gets a spot on the "Hurl Scouts," where she's dubbed "Babe Ruthless," so as to better fit in with her similarly-monikered teammates, including Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself).
From its opening titles, which fill every inch of the screen, Whip It is an exuberant, confident debut. This doesn't feel like a bullshit vanity piece; Barrymore is a skilled, efficient director. The roller derby scenes are genuinely exciting and fun (and, as Roger Ebert noted, Barrymore's supporting role savvily puts her in the position of not asking anything of her actors that she doesn't do herself), but their infectious energy carries through the narrative, which has a gleeful momentum even as it is putting its heroine through some pretty familiar situations. Barrymore's direction (and the script by Shauna Cross, based on her novel) takes moments that are old hat and lets them breathe--watch, for example, the big blow-out fight between Bliss and her folks, and how after Bliss storms out, the camera holds on the parents. It's just a beat longer than usual, but there's years of history in that beat.
It also helps to have actors as skillful as Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern to make a moment like that play. Harden's best scene comes a bit later, actually; I won't spoil it, but there's something about the way that she lights a cigarette and tells her daughter "That's a lot to process" that's just perfect. Stern's performance is just wonderful (it's the kind of turn that makes you wonder why we're not seeing more of him these days), particularly an announcement to Harden near the film's climax which is so perfectly played that, yes, I may have misted up a little bit.
Page is an actress who got a bit of a rap, after last year's underrated Smart People, for "playing every role the same"; anyone who has seen her heartbreaking turn in An American Crime or her scary victim-turned-aggressor in Hard Candy knows better. Her work here is quiet and somewhat understated; early in the picture, she's so meek that you see how she could easily be a wallflower, but the joy of her "extra-curricular activities" transforms her into a fierce, confident, happy sort. It's a subtle shift, and Page carries it off with zeal. Among the rest of the solid cast, the biggest surprise is Jimmy Fallon, who is actually funny for once--as the league's play-by-play man, he oozes oily, unshaven charm. If the picture has a serious flaw, it's that it is occasionally too pushy in its "grrrrl power" punk-rock aesthetic--but that's mostly confined to the too-stylized closing credits sequence, and never feels are forced as in, say, the Barrymore-produced Charlie's Angels movies.
Formulas are funny; when a movie is limply done, then you can all but hear the gears of its formula grinding into place (as in the recent Couples Retreat). But when a movie has wit and enthusiasm, as Whip It does, you go right along with it, either not noticing or not caring that, yes, it will be important when so-and-so shows up to cheer on our heroine at the championship match. It may be a foregone conclusion, but it also feels like the natural progression of events, and besides, we want them to be there to cheer on plucky little Bliss. She deserves it, and we're cheering for her too.
Sorry, people. I'm not made of wood. Whip It made me unreasonably happy. It's a wonderful movie.
"Whip It" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 26th.