After 30 years in the business and 10 years producing her own films, actress Drew Barrymore is making her directorial debut on Whip It, a coming of age story about a teen finding herself in the world of competitive roller derby. The script is written by Shauna Cross, a derby athlete herself, based on her own semi-autobiographical novel, Derby Girl.
The story is set in Bodeen, a small Texan town where they take their football and beauty pageants very seriously. Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page) is miserable, forced into the latter by a mother who vicariously revels in the fake world of make-up and enhanced gowns. That is, until Bliss emerges on stage with blue punk rock hair and answers she’d most “like to have dinner with Joe Strummer from The Clash.”
At school and her waitress job she laments the trapped hillbilly lifestyle with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development” as the comic relief). A flier makes her aware of roller derby, a brutal sport of skates and hip-checking played in an Austin warehouse, and soon they’re sneaking out to the city to see a match. Emceed by Fever Pitch co-star Jimmy Fallon, it’s a loud, crude battle of hot ladies crashing into each other at top speed. It’s Bliss.
After the match Bliss tells a skater, “Y’all are my new heroes! I wanna be you!” A tattooed derby girl named “Malice in Wonderland” (Kristen Wiig) replies, “Well, put some skates on. Be your own hero” before telling her when to show up for try-outs. Bliss is 16, too young for the rough and tumble sport of roller derby, but she lies and soon she’s a member of the “Hurl Scouts.”
On wheels she goes by the name “Babe Ruthless,” one of the many vicious skating pseudonyms the girls go by. Surprisingly Barrymore, who also produced, didn’t cast herself as a glamorous supporting Scout. I thought she was more of a fit for Malice, the encouraging mentor role, but instead she plays “Smashley Simpson,” a dim blocker with a familiarity with the penalty box.
“Whip it” refers to an arm swing from Hurl Scout “Emma Geddon” that sends Bliss flying around the track at crowd-pleasing speeds. Though from the looks of the cast line-up, the character may have been renamed to “Bloody Holly” for stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoe Bell, but I could definitely be wrong.
My only problem with the line-up is “Dinah Might,” a hokey rival who takes her derby a little too seriously. Her lines and sneering attitude reminded me of a Mighty Ducks villain. I’m hoping the talented Juliette Lewis can salvage the ridiculous antagonist. Plus a thin love story needs a little work, especially to juxtapose all the body bruising.
The script captures the culture here in Austin fairly well, hitting on the high points of tourism for the oasis of weirdos in the conservative state of Texas. It’s littered with misfit characters, indie rock bands, head shops, arthouse cinema, Whole Foods, and even a reference to the bat caves in the Southwest part of the city. I can only hope it carries the characteristic weird style even though it was filmed in Michigan.
It’s a fun girl-power story and the sport will likely benefit from the film’s positive word-of-mouth. Cross overlaps the two worlds well, mixing the fast-paced roller derby action and small town drama as Bliss makes the covert trip from Austin to Bodeen and back. Barrymore has picked a breezy fem film and surrounded herself with a solid cast for her first time behind the camera.
The Whip It trailer from Fox Searchlight sells this as another Juno, but it has a bit more of a predictable arc to it. Here it is: