Drew Barrymore comes from one of the most prestigious acting families Hollywood has ever known. She began acting at the ripe old age of 5, and came to national attention at 7, when she was picked by her future godfather Steven Spielberg to be one of the young stars of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. After rebelling against anything anyone expected of her throughout her teens and early twenties, she added the title of Producer to her resume at 24, taking an extra added amount of control over her career. It took her ten years to also add the title of Director to her ever more impressive resume, and it was worth the wait.
Whip It is one of those movies that feels so familiar because it skirts near many cliches, while side stepping them just enough to not feel like we've seen this movie a hundred times before. It stars Juno's Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender, a Texas teenager who regularly competes in beauty pageants at the behest of her pushy but loving mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden, I think the only real Texan in the cast). While in a head shop trying to get her mom to buy her a pair of boots she likes, Bliss sees a group of tattooed girls on roller skates handing out flyers. She grabs one and finds out that they're roller derby girls promoting an upcoming game. So she convinces her best friend Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) to go with her to Austin to check it out. There, she sees the tough, up-tempo game and is immediately hooked. After the game, she meets one of the girls, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), who tells her she should come to the open tryouts and see if she wants to join up. Although she's little, Bliss turns out to be one of the fastest girls on skates, so the team happily asks her to join. All the girls have a kind of stage name that they go by, with names like Smashly Simpson, Rosa Sparks, and Bloody Holly. Bliss is re-christened Babe Ruthless, and begins her love affair with the roller derby, and (of course) comes-of-age by the end of the movie.
There's also a short, but sweet, little love story with a guitar player named Oliver. But really, the relationship that gets the most attention, deservedly, is that of Bliss and her parents. Bliss rebels against the beauty pageant mentality that she feels her mom has been pushing on her, and turns to Maggie Mayhem when she isn't really able to talk to her father (Daniel Stern, where has he been?) who actually would love to talk to his daughter about her life. Maggie becomes a kind of mentor to young Bliss, and Kristen Wiig proves that she's not only one of the funniest members of the Saturday Night Live cast, or a comedic scene stealer in movies like Adventureland and Walk Hard, but also a talented dramatic actress. But she isn't the only one who provides a realistic and sympathetic adult. Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross (adapting her own book, Derby Girl) don't make Brooke into the domineering stage mom that Bliss feels like she is. And Daniel Stern gives a wonderful take on the supportive dad archetype, a guy who unconditionally loves his daughter, understands what she's going through finding a sport that she loves (as Texas football is for him), but is still believable as an angry and concerned parent when Bliss doesn't come home one night.
Drew Barrymore shows none of the amateurish signs that often pop up in a directorial debut. There are no awkward moments with the actors, no scenes that should've been cut short, and she handles the drama and comedy with equal aplomb. She also makes roller derby exciting, while explaining enough of the rules to let us know what's going on. The derby scenes are exciting, and in the grand tradition of sports movies, it even ends with a "Big Game". Another thing that Barrymore thankfully doesn't do is villainize anyone, even the closest thing we have to a villain, Juliette Lewis's Iron Maven and her rival team. It's very nice to see such command of tone from a director, and enough intelligence to side step full-on cliches. Barrymore has now become an official triple-threat, actor/producer/director. She's made a terrific directorial debut, one of the best movies of the year, and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.