In prim cocktail dress and pumps, Bliss appears to be in drag. She's more herself in thrift-shop dresses and combat boots. Obviously, the pageant world is too restrained for her. It doesn't permit a full range of social and physical expression.
When Bliss sees brazen skater-grrls - hair flying and fishnets snagged - roll into a thrift shop, she finds her spiritual sisters. For her, these hellions on wheels nicknamed Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself) fearlessly exhibit the free-spirited physicality Bliss hides under taffeta.
The derby daredevils don't care that the men in the audience come for the girl-on-girl action. The girls are there because skating allows them to compete and, yeah, be physically aggressive in the context of contact sport.
More intimately than most in Hollywood, Barrymore knows how few female types there are on screen. Beyond the good girl and the bad girl (movie versions of the madonna and the whore), there are square pegs. Barrymore puts faces and gives backstories to these nonconformists trying to define themselves before others define them. The chief appeal of the film is to watch Bliss, misfit among angelic pageant girls, emerge as derby devil Babe Ruthless - sensitive, combative, girly, butch, timid, and fearless - whisking conflicting femininities into one tasty serving.
Working from the autobiographical novel by Shauna Cross, Barrymore celebrates a broad cross-section of females. These include blue-collar moms who are pageant ladies (Harden), brainiacs who work in diners (Alia Shawkat), cocktail waitresses who would rather compete at roller derby than perform pole dances (Lewis), tough dames who are tender moms (Wiig), and girls like Bliss who find a social outlet (roller derby) and first love (with an Austin alt-rocker, Oliver, played by Landon Pigg).
Barrymore takes us into the world of these women (and the men who both love and ogle them), diving deep into their emotions. None dare call it girl stuff. It's human stuff. Surprisingly moving is the mother/daughter dynamic between Brooke and Bliss, well-played by the irony-free Harden and Page.
The first-time filmmaker is a most sympathetic director of all the actors, eliciting memorable performances from Wiig, Daniel Stern (as Bliss' dad), and especially from Lewis, as the reigning skate queen resentful of Bliss' youth and opportunities. Quite droll is Andrew Wilson - elder brother of Luke and Owen - as the coach who can't get his team to read the playbook. (Less droll is Jimmy Fallon as the rink announcer.)
What Barrymore is less good at is the direction of the action sequences, which feature the actresses - including Barrymore herself as the punch-drunk Simpson - doing their own skating. (Perhaps an overhead shot or two would have helped clarify the game in which certain players get points for passing blockers from the other team.)
Finally, though, Whip It (which takes its name from a play in which skaters hold hands and form a human whip to propel the last skater forward) is heaven on wheels.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/