'Whip It': Empowerment fable on Barbie skates

Posted: October 01, 2009

"Whip It" will be a confusing movie for those who question the value of a roller-derby movie that does not star Raquel Welch, or someone like her.

The featured player in Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" is not only bony little Ellen Page, it's Page stripped of the snarky assertiveness she displayed in "Juno."

Here, she's the proverbial shrinking violet: a Texas girl named Bliss raised by a prim mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who wants her to be a refined, demure pageant star.

Bliss knows that she's stifled by the beauty-queen life, but she doesn't know what she wants, until one day she sees a bunch of tough-looking girls passing out fliers for a roller-derby exhibition. She attends and is hooked, telling one skater, "You're my new hero."

Grab a pair of skates, she replies, and be your own hero.

Not a bad tag line for a good-natured fable of female empowerment, which "Whip It" becomes as Bliss grabs her old Barbie skates and joins the rough-and-tumble team, exchanging elbows with girls who compete and perform and get cool stage names (Barrymore is Smashley Simpson, and hip-hopper Eve is Rosa Sparks.)

Barrymore's movie is as bubbly as she is, and its best feature is the atmosphere of all-girl camaraderie that she creates and captures. You get why Bliss finds a new home there, leading to the parallel conflict with her old home - she lies to her mother about her evening and weekend whereabouts.

You can probably guess how that plays out, but the script has some surprises, too. Even as "Whip It" urges Bliss to go for it and follow her dreams, it does so by insisting that she remain unselfish and respectful (set forth in a nice scene featuring Katherine Wiig as a tough-love mentor). Remember this one on Mother's Day.

Barrymore's feature debut is a little uneven - it handles relationships far better than action, for instance. But it's a decent action-comedy sister to "The Devil Wears Prada" - a story of battle-hardened older women taking a young gal under their wings, helping her find herself and her self-confidence.

A new genre is forming, a little overdue.

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