A girl's coming-of-age story has a number of required elements. There's the funny best friend. There's the dreamy boy. The need to break out of the oppressive bonds of a small town and teenagedom. The parents who just don't understand. The sneaking out to roller derby practice. Wait a minute . . .
Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, "Whip It," opening Oct. 2, travels some familiar territory while cleverly swerving around its cliches, says its star Ellen Page. That's one of the reasons she agreed to take the part, her first leading role since her Academy Award-nominated turn in "Juno."
"It's enjoyable to be involved with something that could easily be pegged or pigeonholed, and to be working with Drew, who completely wanted to avoid all that and make a really sincere, truthful, multidimensional story," Page says. Speaking on the phone from London, where she's filming Christopher Nolan's "Inception," she goes down the list of characters who manage to escape conventional treatment, starting with her own.
Bliss Cavendar, at 17, is stifled by her life in Bodeen, Texas, and by her mother's determination for her to compete on the beauty pageant circuit. But Bliss isn't a capital "R" rebel, or even a lower-case misfit. "She just has so much love for her mother and wants her mother to love her, and that's just how she's driven," Page says. And her mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, is allowed some drives of her own.
Bliss' best friend Pash, played by Alia Shawkat ("Arrested Development"), is similarly given more to do than just make jokes and obsess about boys. As Page notes, "The relationships I've had with my girlfriends are so powerful and meaningful. Without them I truly don't know what I'd do. I'd be completely lost. This film creates that for these two girls." She adds that the rapport was easy to portray because the two became close friends on the set. In fact, Shawkat was hanging out with her in London.
The requisite romantic relationship unfolds in an unusual way in the film, and an unusual partner was found in the casting of Landon Pigg, a singer-songwriter who's never acted before. Page recalls reading with a number of "awesome, lovely actors," but nobody was quite right. "And then Landon came in, and I just immediately was like, 'Who is this guy?' First of all, I find him incredibly attractive. On top of that, he has this ease and confidence and this way about him. It didn't feel like he was acting. I immediately fell for him and was so excited that he got to be in it."
Then there's the dream. When Bliss sees roller derby girls handing out fliers for a show, she's intrigued. Once she sees them in action, she's hooked. The script was written by roller derby athlete Shauna Cross, based on her novel "Derby Girl," and required some serious skating skills.
Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Page says she learned how to ice skate growing up but was never particularly good at it. After working for three months with her trainer Axles of Evil (a.k.a. Alex Cohen), and scrimmaging with some real L.A. Derby Dolls, she proudly estimates that she did about 99% of her own skating seen on-screen. Some of Bliss' teammates and opponents are played by Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Eve and Juliette Lewis, under noms de guerre like Iron Maven and Smashley Simpson.
Page, 22, speaks so highly of her compatriots that she realizes it probably sounds too good to be true. "When you're learning something new with a bunch of other girls, you become so supportive, and we all became so close," she says. "It was one of the best, if not the best, filmmaking experiences I've ever had. I felt like this lucky little kid." One with a killer nickname: Babe Ruthless.