As earnest and adorable as she may be, Drew Barrymore's attempts at including girl power in her acting and producing career have often come across as strident or misguided, from the absent guns in the Charlie's Angels movies to whatever it is you want to call He's Just Not That Into You.
But blessed with a perfect subject matter and a confidence that comes across both on-camera and in her work behind it, Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It is an energetic delight. Set in the raucous and bruising world of female roller derby, the film is a sports movie and coming-of-age tale all wrapped within a kind of feminist rallying cry. Sure, it hits the point a little too neatly when one character encourages another to "be your own hero," but it's pretty much impossible for anyone, especially women, not to walk out of this movie feeling as powerful as those girls on skates.
Leading the charge of it all is Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a girl with Juno's fashion style but few other similarities, suffering through her mom's (Marcia Gay Harden) beloved beauty pageants while secretly wishing for any kind of life outside tiny Bodeen, Texas. On a whim and with the begrudging support of her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), Bliss checks out a roller derby bout in nearby Austin, and somehow works up the courage to strap on skates and join the team.
Suddenly thrust in a world where tattoos are the norm and everyone goes by their punny derby name, Bliss is one of the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy and fun-loving bunch who barely care that they're last in the league. Driving their coach (Andrew Wilson) crazy with their lack of competitive spirit, the Scouts-- among them den mother Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), stoner Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), and toughies Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell)-- happily welcome Bliss, who pretends to be 22 to qualify. Other teams are generally depicted as generic villains, which goes against the friendly spirit I've witnessed at New York derby bouts but suits Whip It's boilerplate "underdogs vs. the meanies" sports movie plot. Plus, it allows the utterly unhinged and wonderful Juliette Lewis to steal the whole movie as Iron Maven, a rival derby girl who backs up her jealousy of Bliss with ferocious skills on the track.
The derby scenes are remarkably coherent and the rules well-explained, though I imagine someone unfamiliar with the sport would struggle to follow along. No matter, really; Jimmy Fallon provides hilarious master-of-ceremonies commentary as "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket, and the real fun is in seeing the inventive blocks, jabs, and in some cases punches the girls throw to get past the other team.
Of course there are multiple subplots that take us away from the derby track, and they're only occasionally worth it-- Page and Shawkat make wonderfully convincing best friends, and their derby-related fallout feels heartbreaking and true, but Bliss's fling with a shaggy haired musician (Landon Pigg) feels more like a distraction than the intended teenage milestone. Best of all, though, is the tricky relationship between Bliss and her mom, a push and pull terribly familiar to every veteran of adolescence. Harden and Page work wonderfully together as a mother and daughter who think they can't connect, and Harden works especially hard to make her character more than just a prissy mom who doesn't get it, an effort that pays off beautifully near the end of Shauna Cross's tight, buoyant script.
As a director, Barrymore isn't perfect-- characters often do things for the sake of a great shot rather than narrative consistency (who makes out underwater, anyway?), and as great as the derby scenes look, quieter scenes often boast distracting camera angles or otherwise boring direction. And while she uses music nicely throughout, Barrymore criminally misuses MGMT's "Kids" at a key moment, a song near to my heart and already played to death anyway. But Barrymore makes a ton of great little choices, from casting women of different sizes as the derby girls to coaxing a pretty great performance out of Wiig, that it all washes out in the end. Her enthusiasm behind the camera is what counts, and despite its manifold little problems, Whip It sometimes comes close to vibrating with joy.
I don't want to overplay the feminist element of the film, in fear that guys might stay away (which they might anyway, and that would be a huge mistake). But it feels wonderful to see a movie about women that has nothing to do with the (often beloved) men in their lives, a movie in which women can be sexy with their giant bruises and strong while wearing miniskirts, single moms and teachers and high schoolers who have found genuine thrill in their lives. Even if she never makes a movie this good again, Barrymore has given the world something wonderful-- a brazenly feminist film that's a tremendous amount of fun.