Ellen Page is quickly becoming the female Michael Cera — someone the audience can identify with no matter what’s swirling around her. Just like Cera, she grounds every movie she stars in and gives it enough soul to be good. We like her and care about her, and we see ourselves and our struggles inside hers.
Yeah, so it’s a good thing she’s directly in the center of Whip It, because this is some by-the-numbers Hollywood moviemaking right here in your face. The stock characters swirl around her — domineering mother, aloof father, cute little sister, wisecrackingly smart friend, cinematically crazy roller derby girls, cute boy/rock star, etc — and it kinda works because Ellen Page is all vulnerable and stuff.
What director Drew Barrymore has done is made a movie about roller derby that is as safe as humanly possible. There’s no real danger, no real surprises, and unless this is your first time in a cineplex, you’ll be able to pretty much figure out the ending after about a half an hour.
For example, Ms. Barrymore cast herself as Smashley Simpson, a total psychotic who gets thrown out of every roller derby match she’s in because she can’t resist the urge to beat up girls. That character should have some edge, right? Well, this psycho has been covered in a shellac of extreme non-threateningness that’s so pervasive, it makes her vicious attacks seem cute. I realize the point of a movie like this is to make us like and identify with the characters, but does all the menace have to be removed and replaced with cuteness?
That’s not to say that everything besides Ellen Page was bad. A couple of the other performances — most notably Andrew Wilson (the lost Wilson brother) as Page’s oft-ignored roller derby coach — were top-notch, and the roller derby action was pretty exciting without being unrealistic or stylistically distracting.
Also, the film did remind me of Texas, with its beauty pageants and crazy moms with misplaced priorities. It got a lot of the details of that right. And its message of “be yourself,” trite and safe as it may be, did come through in a positive and not totally trite way. In a way, it reminded me of the Lyndsay part of Freaks and Geeks, where a small brunette girl discovers a new world she likes that doesn’t quite fit with the world her parents have created for her. Don’t let anyone tell you not to play roller derby or hang out with stoners, small brunette girls.
Tomatometer rating: 84%
What it should have been: 75%