Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It plays like one pictures a sleepover at Barrymore’s house might unfold: There’s lots of rah-rah girl-power cheering, a food fight, someone getting dunked in a hot tub, a little bit of roughhousing and a deep sense of love and community. That’s fine if you’re one of Barrymore’s bestest buds, but as a moviegoing experience it’s kind of cloying. For a film about a sport that involves lots of pushing, elbowing and bruising, Whip It is just too overwhelmingly nice.
At the same time, its puppy dog-like friendliness is part of its appeal. Ellen Page stars as a very Drew Barrymorean heroine, a basically good, smart girl whose vague “alternative” tendencies (“Alternative to what?” Page’s Bliss asks in one of the movie’s few self-aware moments) are entirely benign and safe—instead of the tacky beauty pageants her overbearing mother (Harden) pushes her into, Bliss would much rather don roller skates, knee and elbow pads, fishnet stockings and a goofy costume to be reborn as Babe Ruthless, star of the Austin, Texas, roller-derby team known as the Hurl Scouts.
And so, she does. Roller derby is great! Bliss makes awesome new friends! She falls for a scruffy indie boy! Jimmy Fallon is there! It’s the life that Barrymore must imagine for every misunderstood teen who’s really, like, a beautiful flower inside. Okay, Bliss’ mom doesn’t approve of roller derby, and her best friend (Shawkat) starts feeling a little left out. Wanna bet they’ll come around in the end?
Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross (working from her own novel) admirably downplay both sports-movie clichés (the Hurl Scouts are underdogs, and it all sort of comes down to one big game, but the stakes remain pretty low) and rom-com conventions (not everything works out between Bliss and her beau), but the movie is nevertheless predictable and almost entirely drama-free. It ends with a montage of bloopers and bonding moments, which look like loads of fun—for the people who were there.