Laced with good-natured hipster kitsch and endearingly goofy girl power, director Drew Barrymore’s roller-derby dramedy, “Whip It,” is a gas. In her contact-sporting debut feature, Barrymore hams it up as injury-prone skater “Smashley Simpson,” but pays equal attention to all players in a lively femme-centered ensemble led by Ellen Page — who, as blooming wallflower Bliss Cavendar (aka “Babe Ruthless”), finally has a role to match her star-making turn in “Juno.” Young females will roll in the aisles, and in general B.O. prospects look zippy for Fox Searchlight’s Oct. 2 release, particularly as the fall track appears overcrowded with weightier opponents.
Faithfully adapting her novel “Derby Girl,” screenwriter Shauna Cross follows the basic rules of the coming-of-age movie, as punk-spirited Texas teen Bliss (Page) yearns to distinguish herself from old-school Mom and Dad (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern), who have her enrolled in cheesy, “Little Miss Sunshine”-style beauty pageants. When bespectacled Bliss, a waitress in a small-town BBQ joint, happens upon the rough-and-tumble world of women’s roller derby, the discovery liberates not only her but the movie, which likewise finds its true calling on and around the track.
Hiding her age in order to try out for the Hurl Scouts, Bliss displays surprising speed even on her old Barbie skates and lands a coveted spot on the team, despite an initial reluctance to push and shove competitors — the sport’s raison d’etre, particularly for hooting fans.
Though Barrymore isn’t much interested in mapping the spatial complexities of roller-derby action, her shooting of the games — equal parts silly and violent — is plenty visceral for these purposes. What distinguishes “Whip It” from the sports-film pack is the director’s keen focus on the minutiae of team camaraderie, as Bliss learns to body-check opponents and is gradually accepted by her elder Hurl Scouts — tough-as-nails chicks with self-styled Army-green getups and names like “Maggie Mayhem” (Kristen Wiig) and “Bloody Holly” (Zoe Bell, “Death Proof”).
As coach of her own team, Barrymore has assembled a game crew of alt-film all-stars, including d.p. Robert Yeoman (“Rushmore”), editor Dylan Tichenor (“Magnolia”) and ubiquitous music supervisor Randall Poster, whose soundtrack, ranging from the Ramones to the Breeders, matches the fast-rolling action hit for hit. Kevin Kavanaugh’s production design captures working-class Texas marvelously, and Catherine Marie Thomas’ costumes — particularly the skaters’ outfits, from helmets to fishnets — are a hoot.
If “Whip It” seems to push its luck with a near-two-hour running time, it’s a forgivable offense in the context of Barrymore’s palpable desire to make the relationships resolve not just happily, but believably. Up to the climactic championship game (inconveniently held on the night of Mom’s beloved Bluebonnet pageant), the movie’s final third is a comprehensive series of lengthy two-handers between Bliss and various intimates: her intimidating rival (a rad Juliette Lewis), her fave teammate/confidante (Wiig), her overprotective mom, her cheerleading dad, her jealous best friend (Alia Shawkat), and her cute but untrustworthy beau (Landon Pigg). Remarkably, none of these dialogue-heavy scenes takes the easy way out.
Of course, sizable credit for the film’s winning ways belongs to Page, whose performance — complete with her own skating — is one of grit, grace and speed. Acting far less precocious than she did in “Juno” and “Hard Candy,” the young thesp takes a slight and welcome turn toward realism here, while hewing to the fancifully warm tone that is the movie’s defining quality.
As if the emotional weight of a Hurl Scouts food fight weren’t surprising enough, the end credits’ cliched use of comedic bloopers feels downright poignant, as “Whip It” reluctantly takes leave of its lovably butt-kicking heroines — at least until the sequel.