[Screen It]

(2009) (Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: A teen secretly opts to join a rough-and-tumble roller derby team, thus putting her at odds with her stage-mother mom who'd rather have her following in her footsteps of being a beauty pageant contestant.
Bliss Cavendar (ELLEN PAGE) is a 17-year-old who lives in a small Texas town with her younger sister, Shania (EULALA SCHEEL), and their mom, Brooke (MARCIA GAY HARDEN), and dad, Earl (DANIEL STERN). When she doesn't work in the local diner with her best friends, Pash (ALIA SHAWKAT) and Birdman (CARLO ALBAN), she reluctantly enters various beauty pageants, just to appease her mom, competing against the likes of Corbi Booth (SARAH HABEL).

Her uneasy and generally unhappy demeanor gets a boost, however, when she and Pash sneak off to nearby Austin to watch a roller derby match. Instantly enamored with the tough girls on the Hurl Scouts team -- such as Maggie Mayhem (KRISTEN WIIG), Smashly Simpson (DREW BARRYMORE), Rosa Sparks (EVE) and Bloody Holly (ZOE BELL) -- Bliss lies to Coach Razor (ANDREW WILSON) that she's old enough to join the team and renames herself Babe Ruthless.

When not competing in the matches emceed by track announcer Johnny (JIMMY FALLON) and having to deal with tough rivals such as Iron Maven (JULIETTE LEWIS) and Eva Destruction (ARI GRAYNOR), Bliss finds herself falling for rocker Oliver (LANDON PIGG) and growing apart from Pash. Yet, her secret alter-life, in which she thinks she's found her true calling, is at odds with the life her mother wants for her, meaning the teen must decide what she's going to do and who she's going to make happy.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's interesting how some things can seem so different on the surface, yet end up being fairly similar on some level down below that. Take, for instance, beauty pageants and roller derby matches. One's all about being poised, pretty, perfect and artificially girly, while the other features speed, hard contact, falling and decidedly "un-ladylike behavior" displayed by women who'd rather sport tattoos and bruises than evening gowns and tiaras.

Yet, both are about competition, can have their share of participants trying to undermine and/or psych-out competitors, and can get quite violent. Granted, roller derby is far more likely to feature that latter element, but I'm guessing pageants have their fair share of behind closed door "cat fighting" and perhaps some knock-down, on the stage bouts would boost the progressively declining ratings of said beauty contests.

In any event, those who participate in one such activity aren't likely to do the same in the other, what with the obvious disparity in the nature and culture of the two where "good girls" can be found in one and "bad girls" in the other. That is, except for Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year-old diner waitress who's involved in one to please her overbearing stage mother, but really wants to do the other alongside the likes of competitors with names such as Maggie Mayhem, Smashly Simpson, Rosa Sparks and Bloody Holly (we'll leave it up to you to decide which is which).

That's the basic gist of "Whip It," a coming of age dramedy based on the book by Shauna Cross (who also wrote the screenplay) and that marks the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore who finally gets behind the camera after being in front of the same for nearly all of her life.

Aside from the roller derby angle (that occasionally gets covered in movies, ranging from Raquel Welch's "Kansas City Bomber" to the futuristic modifications of "Rollerball"), this is the sort of tale we've seen countless times before. Boiled down to the familiar essence, it's about a soon to be an adult kid who wants to find their own calling in the world, but must put up with an overbearing parent who wants them to follow in their footsteps (and thus, one assumes, live out their former life one last time, albeit vicariously through their offspring).

Accordingly, such a plot usually follows the same trajectory of submission to that parental dream, a catalyst to break away but lying to cover that up, confrontation, disappointment and estrangement, and finally acceptance and growth from both parties. Barrymore and Cross don't stray far from that formula, as our plucky heroine (Ellen Page in another winning performance that's slightly similar in parts to her work in "Juno" yet different enough not to come off as copycat fodder as occurred in "Smart People") must deal with and try to break away from her uptight mom (Marcia Gay Harden in the initially thankless parental role). That's all while the husband/father (Daniel Stern) mostly stays on the sidelines, occasionally offering support that finally arrives in lump form near the end.

Throw in some montages (including a food fight of all things!), the usual mean rivals (Juliette Lewis as a true to her age competitor), the eventually strained best friend relationship (featuring Alia Shawkat), a little romance (Landon Pigg as the charming, but can he be trusted rocker), and the highly over-rated Jimmy Fallon in an extended cameo as the matches' annoying emcee, and the odds of this offering working to a satisfactory or above degree wouldn't seem great.

Yet, those in front of and behind the camera add enough fun, cute, charming and/or funny nuances to the rote material that they actually manage to make it feel fresh to one degree or another. The on the track sequences are adequately handled, even if there's only so much one can do with a sport where the competitors go 'round and 'round on a fairly short, banked oval board track (including the use of the titular move to gain added speed and thus score more).

Where the film really earns its points, however, is in the emotionally honest and surprising depth that develops toward the end of the third act. While some/all of that is to be expected (considering the buildup of related elements), Barrymore and company manage to pull it off with aplomb and sans any sort of forced and thus off-putting sentimentality.

In the end, "Whip It" comes off as a cute and entertaining diversion that's nothing spectacular, yet proves to be a solid, endearing and occasionally touching directorial debut. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed August 19, 2009 / Posted October 2, 2009

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