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Whip It

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

Remember all those austere and crotchety characters Lionel and Ethel Barrymore played in movies during the first half of the 20th century? Between these siblings more celluloid butt was kicked than Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone ever dreamed of booting.

That's what caused me to wonder how the great Lionel and Ethel, if they were alive today, would react to the first film ever to be directed by their grandniece. It's just been released and has the title of "Whip It." The director is Drew Barrymore, the daughter of John Drew Barrymore and the granddaughter of the legendary John Barrymore. That's "legendary," as in Errol Flynn.

Uncle Lionel would probably fly into some kind of Mr. Potter-like snit, and Aunt Ethel's eyes would bug out more than usual in that penetrating, unblinking stare of hers as she declares contempt for what they call The Cinema these days. What's a Drew to do?

TXRD doesn't stand for what you might think at first glance, so, would you believe what it really means is TeXas Roller Derby? And "whip it" is a roller derby floor maneuver used to, sort of, catapult a team mate further ahead of the pack in order to score against the opposing team of skaters.

Hurl Scouts

The Hurl Scouts of Austin

I haven't been to Texas in quite a spell, but I'd bet a taco to a tamale that roller derby is a hot item in the Lone Star State. In case you've never noticed, it's one hell of a contact sport---a little bit like football on wheels.

Bodeen, Texas is where Ms. Barrymore's film begins. The leading lady of this fable is a Juno-type female named Bliss Cavendar, played by the excellent Ellen Page ("Juno"). Bliss is growing up in one of those medium-small towns, like so many of us did. Bliss has a salt-of-the-earth blue collar family. Dad (Daniel Stern) does something not connected to the propane business and spends most of his time watching the Longhorns or the Cowboys kick gridiron butt.

Mom (Marcia Gay Harden) is a letter carrier out of the U.S. Post Office in Bodeen. She wears a blue shirt and trousers to work, but mom's molding her petite 17-year-old girl to do some of that fancy pageant walking Tina Fey does so well on Saturday Night Live when impersonating Sarah Palin.

Bliss is smart and a little laid-back like Juno was in "Juno," but for some reason, doesn't speak with a Texas accent. Participating in girl pageants is way down on Bliss's priority list, but she loves her mom loads and doesn't want to disappoint. Dad isn't high on beauty queen competition either, but he does want his indie rock-loving daughter to win. Dad likes his girls to win and be smart. In fact, he says that he married Bliss's mom "because she was smart and because he knocked her up."

Promotional flyers about the Austin, Texas Roller Derby scene--- TXRD--- turn up at the local Oink Joint in Bodeen where Bliss and her best bud, Pash (Alia Shawkat), work as waitresses. It doesn't take long for Bliss to be sneaking off to Austin---just a stone's throw from Bodeen---and start falling in with that rowdy TXRD crowd. Just like my mom used to tell me, "Birds of a feather skate together."

All the ballsy derby dolls in central Texas soon discover the minute Bliss is one swift little skater. She's just perfect for the Hurl Scouts of Austin. One of the Hurl Scouts' opponents is the dreaded Holy Rollers.

Shauna Cross's script allows for some really cool derby doll names, too. My favorites are Babe Ruthless and Bloody Holly, although Iron Maven, played by tough gal actor extraordinaire Juliette Lewis, ain't bad, either. Then there's SNL's Kristen Wiig ("Extract") as Maggie Mayhem and director Drew, herself, playing the role of Smashley Simpson. Other derby doll monikers worth mentioning are Juana Beat'n and Eva Destruction. The only polemic name on the Hurl Scouts roster is that of a really fine Afro-American lady who they call Rosa Sparks. She's usually skating the match up front.

What we've got here is an interesting conflict set up for everybody, what with Mother Cavendar pushing Bliss to go the way of Carrie Prejean, and Bliss telling all those white lies teenagers lay on their parents while she gets suited-up with the Hurl Scouts for a little body-smashing on the Austin roller derby track. But right about here, the formula engages, or more accurately, disengages, at least me. This is a coming-of-age movie with just a little edge to it, after all. (Rated PG-13)

Ellen Page and Landon Pigg

Ellen Page and Landon Pigg on the hood

The exposition of "Whip It" is good and darned funny. Sorry though, the film's predictable, formulaic arc tended to put this jaded moviegoer on hold some, even though there's lots of heart in the script, especially between Page and Harden: both top-notch actors. Furthermore, Juliette Lewis's Iron Maven is a total hoot. The Maven Lady gets to start the best damned food fight since John Belushi fell by the school cafeteria.

I don't want to come off like some old, austere, crotchety movie freak, so, let me close by saying: I firmly believe Lionel and Ethel Barrymore would be throwing food with the rest of them, should they have had the opportunity to experience their grand niece's debut directing a movie girls from nine to ninety will be LOLing over.

But you do need to know, there are two things that went missing in "Whip It": Raquel Welch and Willie Nelson.

"Whip It" official site.

Opens wide 10/2, at the Cinemark in Tulsa.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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