After 30 years of growing up on screen, Drew Barrymore has generated an almost paternal (or maternal, gender depending) reserve of good will that’s carried her through the peaks and valleys of her life and career. And she’s been increasingly savvy about seizing on that good will, too, and giving her fans what they want, regardless of the varying quality of the films themselves. To that end, Barrymore’s middling directorial debut, Whip It, is exactly the movie people have come to expect from her: a light, ingratiating, femme-centered ensemble piece with a positive message on empowerment and independence, with a romantic-comedy element thrown in, because she certainly knows her way around those. It’s virtually impossible to hate the film, but Barrymore’s presence behind the camera suggests more calculation than vision; like a lot of actors who direct, she tends to the performances, but her style never rises above bland proficiency.
Bland proficiency might be enough in some cases, but Whip It delves into the underground roller-derby scene, and the speed, violence, and sexploitative mayhem associated with the sport really needs to pop. Though conspicuously small for the part—she’s supposed to make up in quickness what she lacks in size—Juno’s Ellen Page gives the film a boost as a waitress in small-town Texas who resists mother Marcia Gay Harden’s fixation on raising a beauty pageant queen. After learning of a roller-derby league in a neighboring city, Page steals off at night and works her way onto a losing squad, flanked by Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell, and Barrymore. Under the nom de skate “Babe Ruthless,” Page quickly becomes a sensation, setting up a confrontation with “Iron Maven,” a rival enforcer played by Juliette Lewis. She also starts dating a would-be indie rocker, though that subplot could be shed without anyone really noticing.
Working from a novel by Shauna Cross (who also scripted), Barrymore has fun exploring the tough-girl rituals and bonding of the derby circuit, but her take on the small-town South is hayseed provincial, from the pig-themed diner where Page works to the grotesque pomp of the beauty pageants. Barrymore strands a loaded cast in roles that don’t necessarily require their star power, but then, they’re only a symptom of a film that’s too slight to withstand much bloat. Whip It always seems a beat or two behind the action on every front—the jokes, the drama, and even the brutal stiff-armed takedowns all fall a little flat.