The kind of movie that makes the term "formulaic crowd-pleaser'' seem like a good thing, Whip It is completely predictable from the first frame. It also is ridiculously, utterly entertaining. Drew Barrymore's smashing directorial debut harkens back to an era in which Hollywood studio pictures could still move and enthrall the audience while plying in hoary cliches.
Although the setting of Whip It is fresh territory for movies - the independent women's roller-derby circuit - pretty much everything that happens in the film can be traced back to other pictures, from The Karate Kid and The Bad News Bears to Saturday Night Fever. That comparison may sound like a dreary mishmash, but Barrymore, working from a screenplay by Shauna Cross (who adapted her novel, Derby Girl), has crafted a spirited and engratiating coming-of-age tale by focusing on the basics: Character, performance and an unflagging energy that makes the almost two-hour film seem to flit by in half the time.
Ellen Page (Juno) stars as Bliss, a 17-year-old in a dirt-speck Texas town who is resigned to living out the dreams of her parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern) by competing in regional beauty pageants that celebrate conformity and tradition. Intrigued by a flier advertising a roller-derby competition in nearby Austin, Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak out to catch one of the raucous, booze-soaked games, lying about their age to get inside the warehouse where the event is held.
Bliss is instantly smitten by the camaraderie and abandon of the skaters, who sport such names as "Maggie Mayhem'' and "Bloody Polly'' and seem to be having the time of their lives smacking the hell out of each other. Although tiny and frail-looking, Bliss is inspired to attend the open tryouts for the Hurl Scouts team. After she makes the cut, she begins to lead a double life, telling her parents she's taking SAT prep courses while actually learning the rough-and-tumble ways of a roller-derby girl.
Barrymore, who also appears as one of the Hurl Scouts' most injury-prone skaters, treats the sport with the same carefree attitude the athletes do: This isn't the Super Bowl or the World Series but simply something recreational for the girls to do outside of their normal lives as wives, mothers and career women (only the team's exasperated coach, amusingly played by Andrew Wilson, seems really to care about winning).
A terrific ensemble cast, which includes Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig, stuntwoman Zoe Bell, the singer Eve and a re-energized Juliette Lewis, convey the allure and sheer fun of the sport. The aura of sisterhood created by the actors is so effective that even when Barrymore resorts to one of the corniest cliches imaginable -- a food fight -- the result is exhilarating.
Whip It also finds room to give Bliss a romantic interest, in the form of a low-key singer (Landon Pigg) who may or may not be as straightforward and honest as he seems. But Barrymore's main focus is the emergence of Bliss' individuality in an atmosphere that doesn't exactly condone out-of-the-box originality. Page, even more likable here than she was in Juno, is at her most effective in scenes opposite her well-intentioned but oppressive parents, who only intend the best for their daughter, but can't differentiate between their own dreams and those of their child.
Barrymore infuses Whip It with her natural, effusive personality, and although the roller-derby sequences are choreographed more for fun and laughs than sportsmanship, she also pulls off the occasional visually striking sequence (such as a lovely scene in which Page and Pigg make out underwater). Whip It doesn't reinvent the cinematic wheel, but the movie does remind you how much fun riding that wheel can be when it's given just the right kind of spin.