The wheel deal: Barrymore, Page score in comedy
Once in a while, a moviemaker will find it in her heart to make my dreams come true. In Drew Barrymore’s “Whip It,’’ when Juliette Lewis starts a food fight with Ellen Page that turns into about a dozen giggling women rolling around on the floor of a diner covered in condiments, grease, and cream, the movie had won my heart. Did I know this was something I wanted to see? Not really. But the great bait-and-switch of the movies amounts to your dreams being replaced with a director’s. And who would have thought that director would be a woman who, in her next life, seems destined to come back as an energy drink?
Barrymore has so thoroughly laced “Whip It’’ with her own lunatic affections for women and the human race in general that it ought to be sold as an antidepressant. For her first film as a director she’s opted not to raid her past for a juicy Hollywood melodrama. She’s given us a roller derby comedy, adapted with intelligence, heart, fairness, and some wit by Shauna Cross from her novel “Derby Girl.’’ Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a tomboy dying to get out of a small Texas town whose obsessions - football, beauty pageants, big hair - don’t interest her. (Barrymore actually shot the film in Michigan.)
As it happens, her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), has been grooming Bliss and her younger sister for the pageant world. You know this woman is deluding herself to think she could relive her beauty-queen days through a daughter who shows up for one contest with some of her hair dyed blue.
Page’s eye-rolling and sulking are straight out of “Juno.’’ But this part is something new for her. One afternoon Brooke takes Bliss to a thrift store in nearby Austin to buy a pair of combat boots, when three full-figured women come skating toward the register like tattooed angels from hipster heaven. Page’s face lights up in a way I’ve never seen. The angels leave behind flyers for a roller derby league, and without a lot of effort Barrymore and Page make you feel the earth move beneath this girl’s feet.
The rest of the movie is devoted to capitalizing on that excitement. Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) pretend to Mr. Cavendar (an excellently dopey Daniel Stern) that they’re going to high-school football games. They’re actually sneaking over to Austin, where Bliss tries out for the league and winds up helping to turn around a losing outfit called the Hurl Scouts (“We’re number two!’’ they chant after one defeat). The team includes a single mom (Kristen Wiig) and a stoner Whole Foods clerk (Barrymore). The rapper Eve and the stuntwoman Zöe Bell are Hurl Scouts, too. Beyond their noms de skate (Barrymore’s is Smashley Simpson, Eve’s is Rosa Sparks, Page is Babe Ruthless), we don’t learn much about them individually. The point is they have great camaraderie.
The matches, which are staged on a canted track in an abandoned warehouse, aren’t terribly thrilling as athletic spectacles. (The object is to score points by passing other skaters.) But they’re entertaining. Jimmy Fallon emcees them, and he’s more charmingly louche here than he is on his new talk show, once showing up with giant foam cowboy hat on his head. “Clean up on aisle 5,’’ he quips after Smashley punches out a skater.
Barrymore probably overemphasizes the physical brutality. At one point Bliss goes down, and you’re worried we might have a “Million Dollar Baby’’ situation on our hands. But the spirit behind it is sincerely fun in a way that’s rarely the case in alternative-sports comedies like, say, “Dodgeball,’’ “Balls of Fury,’’ or the Will Ferrell movie of your choice. In any of those, Juliette Lewis, who plays a vamp named Iron Maven, would be the villain. Here she’s just charismatically competitive, as opposed to one-dimensionally heartless. Her harassment of Page is a show of respect: When will Bliss fight back? Right there with a dessert in that diner.
The movie’s central drama revolves around how Bliss will reconcile her mother’s wishes with her own. Will the cute, bamboo shoot of a boy (Landon Pigg) she meets in Austin break her heart? Can her friendship with the college-bound Pash survive Bliss’s small-time fame? These and other matters are resolved in nicely written, smartly acted sequences that show off Barrymore’s sharp instincts about how to orchestrate her very different performers. She has Harden and Wiig turn their muchness down, gives Shawkat enough to do so that the many folks who never saw her on “Ar rested Development’’ will feel they’ve made a robust comic discovery, and proves she has good taste in Wilson brothers, casting the shaggiest one, Andrew, to play the Hurl Scouts’ long-suffering coach.
Most crucially, Barrymore encourages Page to just let herself go. The sight of her making her way up residential streets in a pair of Barbie roller skates or screaming “Marco’’ in a game of Marco Polo is simply joyful. If American movies were full of stories about girls, their dreams, their mothers, their heartbreaks, their gift for smashing their elbows into people’s chins, “Whip It’’ would be just another happy comedy. But Hollywood is woefully short on such stories. I anticipate the day when a movie like this stops seeming like the antidote and more like the norm.
Because of a reporting error, the review of "Whip It" in the "G" section on Oct. 2 misstated a character's name. Ellen Page's best friend in the film is named Pash.