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Whip It (2009): ***½

Directed by Drew Barrymore

This really is a joy of a movie. It's a fun little flick about girls beating up on each other, and how that toughness makes them grow, but it has a genuine sweetness that isn't cloying, and an intelligence that is real and clever.

The beats of the story are anything but original. There's a girl (played by Juno's Ellen Page) named Bliss who lives in a small town with an overbearing mother, in this case one who wants Bliss to become a pageant queen. Really wants. Bliss doesn't really want that, but is otherwise aimless. She works at a diner with her best friend, Pash. Like the Little Mermaid, she dreams of something more.

But instead of a handsome prince showing up and sweeping her off her feet, Bliss happens to see a couple of roller derby girls dropping off fliers at a shoe store. She is instantly smitten by their confidence, strength, and camaraderie. She knows her mother won't approve, but she pockets a flier and sneaks off with Pash just to take in one show...

So, yeah, we pretty much know how this story is going to play out. And there is very little surprising about the plot. But what did surprise me was how intelligently each of the characters are portrayed (apart from some comedy relief characters like Drew Barrymore's spacey and comically violent "Smashley Simpson" rollergirl). When Bliss and her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) have their predictable confrontation, the choice of words and attack strategies by each character are miles above your average sports movie dialogue. These are characters who really know each other, know how to push each other's buttons, and realize when it's too late and they've gone too far.

Ellen Page just seems a natural for playing intelligent young women. I wonder if she could be convincing as a brainless bimbo? But it would be such a waste of such a good actress. This is a different role than Juno; Juno started out full of confidence and spit and vinegar whereas Bliss discovers her own inner fire by strapping on skates and getting the crap beat out of her.

I was really pleased that the romantic subplot didn't overwhelm the movie and, indeed, is played pretty much as an unnecessary distraction to Bliss's character arc. I get fed up with movies about girls who are completely defined by their relationship with boys, and Whip It does not trip into that pitfall at all.

The supporting cast including Harden are all also very good. Especially surprising was a rather serious role from Daniel Stern as the poor guy who loves his daughter dearly but really wishes there were some other male in the household with whom he could watch football. Alia Shawkat is all adorable freckles and fun teenage bravado as Bliss's more daring but less careful best friend Pash. Juliette Lewis is scary and gross as main derby rival Iron Maven, who finds Bliss's surprising successes to be threatening. But even she has a sweeter side. After all, she was Bliss at one point in her life. Andrew Wilson (older brother of Luke & Owen) is all crazy, bearded charm as the team's long-suffering coach. Kristen Wiig is sympathetic and real as a character who Bliss sees as an alternate mother-figure. Even Jimmy Fallon has good fun as the announcer "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket, so-named because he has a hot tub that the girls no longer allow him to enter.

The movie is full of moments of charm and humor and great energy. It is a comedy, but one that is based (mostly) on the interactions of strange but realistic characters. It has a great grrrl power vibe that is fun and liberating. Drew Barrymore turns out to have as confident, gentle, and sweet a hand in directing as you would expect from her. Whip It is as adorable as one of Drew Barrymore's smiles.


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