Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directorial debut with this coming of age story set in the world of Roller Derby. This is a sports movie for women, by women, starring women. I suspect men will have little trouble enjoying it as well. Adorable Ellen Page (Juno) plays Bliss, a socially awkward teenager from Bodeen, Texas, who is thrust into the world of pageants by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). One day while shopping in a thrift store, she sees three women skate into the store and leave some fliers about an upcoming Roller Derby.
Intrigued, she recruits her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) to venture into Austin for the event. She is immediately captivated by the sport. She dusts off her old Barbie skates and tries out for the team. After making the team, she becomes an unlikely hero, using her small stature to weave in, out, and around her competitors. The title refers to a move the team uses when they grab her by the hand and catapult her ahead of the pack “whipping” her into position.
This movie is a blast, despite having all the sport movie clichés. Shauna Cross’s screenplay is not exactly brimming with originality. Underdog, check. Disapproving parents, check. First love, check. Climatic final match, check. However, the dynamic cast and the unusual sporting event breathe new life into the genre. Ellen Page is fantastic, and captures the insecurities of her character perfectly. A scene where she gets her heart broken takes your breath away. I actually felt like someone had punched me in the gut. You see her character harden a bit with steely resolve as she climbs the next rung on the ladder of life. The mother/daughter scenes hold a lot of emotional resonance, and were very believable.
Daniel Stern (Home Alone) plays the sweet father trying not to take sides in the stormy relationship between his wife and daughter. For once we get to see Kristen Wiig play it straight as a single mom aka “Maggie Mayhem” in the roller rink. Zoe Bell, a frequent stunt-woman for Quentin Tarantino, appears as “Bloody Holly” which is really awesome. However, the casting coup has to be Juliette Lewis as “Iron Maven.” Lewis was born to play the role of Bliss’s nemesis. All snarls and bitchy ‘tude she is seriously threatened and pissed off by the popularity of her much younger competitor. Andrew Wilson (eldest brother of Luke and Owen) plays the exasperated coach, Razor, and Jimmy Fallon plays a complete tool as the ring announcer “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket.
Ironically, the only acting performance that really stood out as being sub-par was Ms. Barrymore’s. All the women in the movie have a rough look, as if they were rode hard and put away wet, so to speak. Lots of makeup, skanky outfits and sweaty bodies are the norm. That’s not to say that they aren’t sexy, they just have the kind of appeal you usually see from girls in Hair Band videos. In contrast, Barrymore’s “Smashley Simpson” wears pancake makeup, has meticulously groomed eyebrows and sports that damn trademark lisp of hers. She is supposed to be the one on the team who always is getting in girl fights, but it just wasn’t convincing. The movie would have been better without Barrymore’s presence in front of the camera.
That being said, I think she did a great job behind the camera. The movie promotes the idea of discovering what you are good at, and going for it, even if it is unconventional. Everyone has a niche or talent, they just need to find it. I really think it is an empowering movie to watch, especially for teenage girls. Whip It deftly explores female camaraderie, competition, and angst. This is what many people tried to spin Jennifer’s Body into a few weeks ago. Only this is the real deal. When The Breeders’ “Cannonball” starts playing during the last moments, I wanted to jump out of my seat and cheer. Well done, Drew.
*incidentally this looks to be a fun soundtrack. “Cannonball” is not on the soundtrack, but another Breeders song is along with songs by The Ramones, Peaches, Dolly Parton, .38 Special and others.