Child Star Makes Good

Photo: Darren Michaels/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Drew Barrymore is sunshine. Drew Barrymore is cookies. Drew Barrymore is fluffy puppies and mild hallucinogenic drugs, tucked neatly into a gift basket made of daisies. But mainly, Barrymore—whose directorial debut Whip It comes out this fall—is that rare pop culture phenomenon: a force for the authentically benign in mainstream films, not simply the cynically sentimental.

For years, the actress has served as a role model for a peculiarly sunny style of female stardom. A grown-up child star who stumbled through weird marriages, family dysfunction, and substance abuse, she somehow came out smiling, a butterfly tattoo shining on her belly. As an extension of this real-life hippie-chick persona, she became the universal solvent for romantic comedies, adding chemistry to the most barren landscapes. Barrymore’s warmth salvages the lamest chick-flicks (Home Fries, Fever Pitch); renders merely okay ones (Music and Lyrics, Never Been Kissed) delightful to watch; and transforms genuinely great romances—50 First Dates, The Wedding Singer—into classics. With that rubbery smile and her willingness to look more like a dork than a princess, she’s invented a new kind of heroine: the female goofus imbued with what might be called radical sweetness.

Which is why it’s all the more admirable that Barrymore is now pushing the limits of her own proven skills and endeavoring to turn herself into a Hollywood entrepreneur and all-around culture mover and shaker. Her performance as “Little Edie” Beale in HBO’s Grey Gardens fell short for me, but it was clear Barrymore was taking an interesting risk, attempting sadder, stranger choices as an actress. And yet in its way, the movie was also a natural part of the Barrymore portfolio, not a swerve: It resonated with ideas about the struggle for female autonomy—themes she’s pursued ever since she had her first big hit as a producer on Charlie’s Angels.

Now Barrymore has directed her first movie, Whip It, a sweet teen-empowerment version of the rowdy real-life Austin, Texas, roller-derby circuit, starring Ellen Page from Juno. Barrymore is her usual charming self in the movie, playing a klutz nicknamed “Smashley Simpson.” But her fingerprints are everywhere, from the movie’s unusually balanced vision of a mother-daughter relationship to its full-bodied female athletic ensemble to its embrace of the indie-punk derby-girl life as a worthy adventure for Page’s small-town wuss. Page is no Drew Barrymore, but at its best, Whip It is an appealing offering to a female audience longing for inspiring fables, and lucky to have Barrymore as their cheerful, unstoppable advocate.

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore.
Fox Searchlight. Oct. 9.

Child Star Makes Good