Drew and the wheel girls

Drew Barrymore’s Whip It might be set on the roller derby track, but at its heart is a film about family that treats young women with respect.

"I wanted to make a film for so many people," says Drew Barrymore. "For young girls---growing up, when I felt filmmakers weren't patronizing me, I felt like I wasn't alone. I love action, I love comedy, the dynamics of relationships. It's also a mother-daughter love story, it's about family. I made it from my heart, but it's something that would appeal to everybody. I like an all-ages party."

And she hasn't even mentioned the roller derby.

Whip It, the actor's directorial debut, is set in small-town Texas where high school senior Bliss (Ellen Page) is running the pageant circuit at the behest of her beauty queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden). But her rebellious side---hints include combat boots, blue hair and an ironic Stryper shirt---is starting to seep through. When she discovers a girls' roller derby league in Austin, there's no stopping it.

"I liked the prospect of doing a film about a girl who wants to please her mother, then finds this world of roller derby and falls in love with it," explains Page to the gathered press in a Toronto hotel room. "It didn't treat a teenager in a patronizing way. It was a character who was a person."

Based on derby girl Shauna Cross's novel---she also wrote the script---Whip It manages to be topical and trendy, which is hard for movies to do because of their standard lengthy development process (Barrymore notes that she asked Page to do the movie "before Juno"). Women's banked track roller derby is huge right now, with leagues on both coasts and in major cities including Toronto, which hosted a derby at Yonge-Dundas Square in the movie's honour during the film festival. Jump cuts, jibs and movie magic aside, it's truly a hard, fast and physical sport.

"The first things you start with," says Page, who trained for three months in LA, "are getting on and getting off. It was strenuous, but I loved throwing my mind and my body into that."

"I didn't have to train," notes Alia Shawkat, who plays Bliss' non-skating best friend. "I had to make Ellen like me."

"I was always concerned with everybody's safety," adds Barrymore, who adds that she encouraged the actors, including Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis and Eve, to do their own skating. "From the Charlie's Angels films I know how exciting it is for the audience to know people are doing their own stunts. As actors it's exciting to go out and do it and show off all the skills we've worked so hard to learn."

The director refers to the sport as "an interesting and unique backdrop" to what she considers the heart of the story, which is discovering where you belong (the film's tagline, spoken by Wiig onscreen, is "Be your own hero"). "You have to go out there and find your way," says Barrymore. "I don't think things come magically, but with true will and determination. We're all capable of getting that for ourselves. And this is the perfect blueprint for me to put all of that into."

Whip It, like Barrymore's persona---and, it appears from today's conversation, her personality---is pushed past its overlong running time by a similarly breezy, warm, good-natured vibe. Even its rivalries are more likely to resolve themselves in a food fight than on the track.

"I read a quote from Danny Boyle---he was asked why he picks the scripts that he does," she says. "He said something so revelatory: He forgot how difficult filmmaking was in the moment he was reading the story. It's difficult to make films, but you never want that feeling to come through. You want the feeling of this piggy bank I want to break all over the floor that I've been pushing everything into, and convey the joy of reading it for the first time."

But she also gets to access her angry side, in a small part as Smashley Simpson, a pothead with feathers in her hair who's constantly getting ejected from matches for misconduct. "She's a hippie with anger issues," Barrymore shrugs. "I totally have that."

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