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You can: "Whip It"

September 14, 2009 |  7:47 am

DrewBarrymore2Story As much as there gets to be a routine at film festivals, some screenings are simply not like all the others. take, for example, Sunday night's world premiere of "Whip It," the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. Walking up to the theater there was a gauntlet of roller derby girls enthusiastically high-fiving audience members as they entered. In the lobby, actor Justin Long was moving quickly from the vicinity of the bathrooms, with two paparazzi photographers and a videographer giving chase at power-walk speeds. (That last part, especially, not an everyday festival occurrence.)

The festival's Noah Cowan introduced Barrymore, referring to her as a "populist, feminist philosopher." Taking the stage in a bright yellow dress with a printed insect-like pattern, her hair styled in a short blond swoop with punkish black tips, Barrymore excitedly began thanking various production companies and producing partners, seeming to almost choke up a bit before rebounding. She then launched into one of the more extended introductions of this year's festival, bringing up 13 cast members with such exaltations as "one of the most important actresses ever," "one of the most talented women I have ever known," "literally the hottest style of anyone I have ever met" and "the heart and soul of the movie." Writer Shauna Cross took a small tumble backwards as she took her place in the line-up, nearly crashing into the theater's screen, and actress Ellen Page walked with particular care and deliberation in deference to her very high-heeled shoes.

As for the film itself, it is a perfectly functional person-finds-self dramedy mixed with the narrative structure of a sports film, telling the story of a small-town Texas girl (Page) who rebels against her mother's dream of beauty pageant glory to become a star roller derby player. Cross's screenplay feels at time programmatic, and the dialouge lacks the idiosyncratic spark of something like "Juno," an obvious template for the film. The actress Alia Shawkat, best known for her role on the television series "Arrested Development," walks away with all her scenes as Page's best friend, bringing an elastic snap to her role that is missing from much of the rest of the film. At times Juliette Lewis brings such intensity to her part as a rival roller derby player that it seems as if no one informed her the film is ostensibly a comedy. For all it's flaws, the film does have a certain likable pluck and upbeat spirit, and considering the dearth of  positive imagery for young women it is difficult to bust on a film that ends with the exhortation, "To all the girls who believe you can... You can."

As the credits rolled it seemed as if some of the audience realized there would be no Q and A, but the half to two-thirds that stuck around simply did not want to leave. For a few minutes, spontaneous bursts of applause would break out, as would shouts of "Drew, you're amazing!" or "Ellen too, yeah!" Finally Barrymore, standing in the center of the room, shouted out "Everybody, thank you for coming" before making her way to the stage door.

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Drew Barrymore at the "Whip It" premiere in Toronto.
Credit: Associated Press

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