Whip It is a textbook example of how you do a formula picture. The plot isn't the least bit original and you could chart the story using a Mad Libs puzzle. But the film has style and intelligence to spare. I wish it deviated from the cliché a bit more than it does, but the film as-is remains a glorious piece of mainstream entertainment. While Drew Barrymore has been producing films for around 15 years, this is her first directorial effort. Based on the evidence present, she is well on her way to becoming a better director that she ever was as an actor (yes, that's a compliment any way you read it).
Some plot: Bliss Cavander (Ellen Page) lives in the very small town of Bodeen, Texas. While her sister and peers are all too happy to spend their days participating in local beauty pageants, Bliss finds them to be a slow death. Opportunity knocks when she stumbles upon a somewhat underground league of female roller derby players who operate out of Austin. Pretending that she's 22 and telling her parents that she's taking an SAT-prep course, she sneaks off to try-outs and finds that her natural speed on skates make her a valuable commodity to the last-place Hurl Scouts. Will she flourish in this brutally violent sport? Will she be able to keep this all secret from her parents? How will she juggle the demands of her new activity with those of her more traditional mother and her left-out best friend? You probably know the answer to most of these questions, but getting there is quite a bit of fun.
What makes the picture work despite its reliance on formula is its low-key naturalism and high energy. The games themselves are not shot in a hyper-edited fashion to make them seem more intense than they are. Since the characters are exciting, the pacing is almost leisurely and the locations are muted and authentic. And everyone, from the disapproving mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to the rival star-player (Juliette Lewis) are kept firmly in the realm of realistic human behavior. Furthermore, these characters are allowed to maintain the moral high ground even in the stock third-act confrontations. The supporting cast is filled with wonderful actors, from Daniel Stern as Bliss's somewhat more understanding father to Kristen Wig as 'Maggie Mayham', the fellow skater who takes Bliss (or 'Babe Ruthless') under her wing. Even Jimmy Fallon scores laughs as the league announcer. Barrymore cameos as 'Smashley Simpson', a showboating but incompetent star player. Best of all is Andrew Wilson, who wrings nonstop laughs and a dollop of sympathy as the put-on and long-suffering coach.
The picture does deviate from formula just enough to be noticed. There is a stock romantic subplot, but it's handled in a relatively sweet and lackadaisical fashion and doesn't end as you'd expect. Frankly, the movie gets major bonus points simply for being a rare female-driven movie that doesn't completely revolve around romance or getting the guy. And while there is a climactic big game, the outcome is almost beside the point. Best of all, the film refuses to indulge in the sort of 'hey look, it's girls kicking ass - how progressive!' pandering that is often found in allegedly feminist films. The fact that these women really do whack the stuffing out of each other is simply accepted as a matter of course. While a nod is offhandedly made to the sex appeal of the sport ("Why would you think I wouldn't want to watch a bunch of hot girls on roller skates in fishnets beating the crap out of each other?", Bliss's coworker asks early on), the film never goes out of its way to sexualize the contestants. Whip It is the best kind of feminist film; it feels no need to comment on the fact that its heroes are in fact female.
Whip It is one of the most enjoyable film experiences of 2009. It's a formula picture through and through, but it is a truly entertaining one. Ellen Page cements herself as a lifelong actress if she so chooses, and Drew Barrymore cements herself as a triple-threat (acting, producing, and directing). This is the most promising directorial debut by a famous actor since Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone two years ago. The film looks great, it's exceptionally well-acted by a large game cast, and the screenplay by Shauna Cross (a real-life roller derby player in LA) is filled with smart dialogue and genuine wit. Whip It is a just-plain great movie.