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Drew Barrymore “Whips It” Up

With “Whip It”, debut director Drew Barrymore wrangles around every cliché in both the sports and coming of age genres and without actually avoiding them, she still presents them with such earnestness that they come off as fresh and original

To her chagrin, awkward Bliss (Ellen Page) has been forced into beauty pageants by her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Bliss wants to run away from her podunk town existence and finds that salvation playing in a female roller derby league. She sneaks out on her folks and takes the bus to Austin, Texas for tryouts and discovers a knack for the violent sport. Her teammates, including SNL star Kristin Wiig and Barrymore, become a tight surrogate family, particularly once Bliss becomes a derby star under the moniker Babe Ruthless.  She tries to hide her new life from her folks, but as always, the truth will out.

Director Barrymore scuttles past some very messy obstacles that could have ruined the film, including a food fight, a boyfriend with the wandering eye, and the mother of all sport film formulas, the disapproving parent eventually admiring their child’s prowess on the playing field.   How she manages to make this work can be attributed to her quirky tone. The food fight is playful, and the Mama Rose-esque mother has multiple dimensions, including watching her life deteriorate from her own pageant awards in the past to a nonchalant life of two kids and a menial job working a postal route.  It’s those little touches that prevent the film from being weighed down.

Writer Shauna Cross, who based the script on her novel “Derby Girl,” brings authenticity to the arena. Once a member of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, she crashed, weaved and elbowed her way around the track more than once.

Page is endearing as the outsider who finds a place to fit in.  You can feel her pain standing on the stage at the pageants, like a trained monkey and her glee at finding a home with the Hurl Scouts (her oddball team). At the team’s mother hen, Kristin Wiig projects a warm side never seen before in her past dry comic roles. Gay Harden finds that perfect mix of harpy and adoring parent. Alia Shawkat, whose wit was contagious as the Michael Cera's scheming cousin Maeby on “Arrested Development” has some of the best one liners as Bliss' college bound best friend. However, the film is owned by Juliette Lewis, as the aging rival who resents the newcomer for stealing her fire. With only a sneer and a F-U look, she epitomizes the bravado and cocksureness of the Queen of the Rink.

Light but enjoyable fare, “Whip It” is another feather in the cap of actress/producer Drew Barrymore.  Grade: B+

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