It's no Citizen Kane. It's not meant to win awards. I watch movies to enjoy them. These standbys are frequently trotted out before us fuddy-duddy critics whenever we decide that a movie ostensibly meant to be two hours of pure mindless fun simply isn't very good at doing just that. More often than not, it seems that films are championed for their laziness, their relentless adherence to formula, and rarely do these formulas serve a story that's worth more than the sum of its beats. School of Rock managed to work wonders with its wholly predictable plot; I'd vouch for Fever Pitch in much the same way. And joining their ranks of surprisingly satisfying comedies is Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It, a coming-of-age tale fused with an underdog sports story that hits all the expected developments with unexpected personality and grace.
Bliss (Ellen Page) is a beauty pageant contender, mostly because her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) had been one herself, and mostly because there's nothing better to do in Bodeen, Texas. A weekend trip into Austin piques her curiosity about whatever it is those girls on those skates are up to, and a hush-hush return trip with best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) in tow has her falling head over heels for the new-to-her realm of roller derby. Soon enough, she tries out for the team and begins rising through the ranks, armed with a newfound sense of accomplishment and acting without her parents' approval...
You're probably already connecting the dots with regards to which relationships will take a turn for the worse before the big final match, and you're probably not wrong as to how things turn out. It's the way, though, that Harden is so domineering without raising her voice that reflects the sense of modesty that dictates the proceedings. It's in the way that fellow team member Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) delivers a breathless introduction to the sport that soon takes a hilarious detour into personal territory, it's in the way that coach Razor (Andrew Wilson, brother of Owen and Luke) pulls up in a dune buggy that's blasting Wilson Phillips before failing time and time again to successfully coach these girls that want to have fun, and it's in the way that Page nails that critical combination of parental disappointment and willful independence that makes her a more ingratiating protagonist than was possible in the hipster-tastic world of Juno. And while Shauna Cross' adaptation of her own novel isn't nearly as slang-laden as that film was, she still works in the intimate ways that these characters know each other and the ways that they know these places -- the dead-end diner, the fan-packed derby warehouse, and all the swimming pools and empty fields in between -- without overdoing the dialogue.
And Barrymore? Well, she doesn't stay behind the camera simply because the credits tell her to; in fact, her supporting role as Smashley Simpson seems to welcome most of the bruises and bumps that the sport can bring, and it's an oddly effective way to re-endear us to the reliably affable star. As far as her directorial credit is concerned, the film is shot warmly and edited well, particularly in its derby track sequences, with Detroit often and convincingly standing in for Austin and small-town Texas, and I'm curious to see her move away from the cookie-cutter rom-coms that have served her so well as a lead with whatever comes after this (especially if she leaves buddy Jimmy Fallon out of the loop next time -- seriously, dude, Fever Pitch must've been a fluke).
So, no. Whip It is no Citizen Kane, and it won't win any awards, but for what it is, Whip It is very good at what it is -- the story of a girl, and a woman, finding a passion of their own out among all the old familiar places.