Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Daniel Stern, Landon Pigg, Alia Shawkat, Andrew Wilson, Jimmy Fallon, Zoe Bell, Eve, Ari Graynor, Carlo Alban
Written by: Shauna Cross, based on her novel
Directed by: Drew Barrymore
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material
Running Time: 111
Date: 09/13/2009

Whip It (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Roller Babies

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Drew Barrymore makes her feature directorial debut at age 34, and whips up one of the year's most purely enjoyable Hollywood films (along with Adventureland); it's part irreverent comedy, part inspirational sports story and part 1970s drive-in movie. Director Drew, where have you been all my life?

Ellen Page stars -- in much more interesting role than Juno -- as Bliss Cavendar, a teen beauty contestant living in the pit of Bodeen, Texas and working at the Oink Joint (home of the "Squealer" -- if you can eat it in three minutes, it's free!). Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) pushes her toward elegance, but Bliss is more attracted to the world of black boots and dye-blue hair. When she spots a flyer for a roller derby match in Austin, she hitches a ride with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) and finds her true calling. She makes the team and becomes a new local star, as "Babe Ruthless."

All her teammates have great roller derby names, including single mom Maggie Mayhem (a terrific Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Miss Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Bloody Holly (stuntwoman Zoe Bell, also in Tarantino's Death Proof). The team's biggest rivals are Iron Maven (a great, strutting Juliette Lewis) and Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor). Things come to a head with nothing more than a scheduling conflict: the big game and the big pageant fall on the same night. (Welcome to my world...)

Written by Shauna Cross, from her own 2007 novel "Derby Girl," the screenplay follows some of the usual Hollywood formatting, but Barrymore's direction bowdlerizes most of it, smashing potentially annoying clich├ęs, and spending extra quality time with the characters. Refreshingly, Bliss' mother comes across as a real person with a real past, rather than just another controlling mom in yet another teen movie, and the "best friend" character Pash actually has her own life and personality as well. Perhaps the dullest part is the romance between Bliss and a rock musician named Oliver (Landon Pigg); it's cute, but it has none of the sheer thrust of the rest of the movie's girl power.

Moreover, Barrymore captures a genuine flavor of place and time; the Bodeen and Austin locations are used to vivid effect (although, oddly, most of the movie was shot in Michigan!) She revels in the sweat and speed of the rink, as well as the ridiculous of the restaurant and the sophistication of the pageants. She also makes great use of pop music on the soundtrack. (This makes a great double bill with the equally smart Adventureland, also with Kristen Wiig.)

But most of all, Whip It is very, very funny. Cross' clever screenplay aims for throwaway jokes and funny asides rather than building up to big laughs. Daniel Stern gives a funny, yet truthful performance as Bliss' dad, Andrew Wilson is the girls' laid-back, but knowledgeable coach, and Jimmy Fallon manages to fit in nicely as the ring announcer during the games. In a perfect world, with an Academy that liked comedy, there would be a whole bunch of Oscar nominations here.

DVD Details: Fox's DVD comes with 16 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes, and trailers. Audio track comes in English, French or Spanish, with optional subtitles. The Blu-Ray reportedly comes with one more featurette, Shauna Cross on "Writer's Draft," as well as a digital copy of the film.

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