Go forward, move ahead!
A high school-aged barbecue waitress in a small Texas town discovers the empowering goodness of roller derby in Whip It, the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. The movie showcases another great performance from Ellen Page. It works as both a fun portrayal of a crazy sport and a coming-of-age story, thanks to a very game Page, who does a lot of her own skating and has no problem playing 17 despite being 22.
Bliss Cavendar (Page) isn’t the most popular girl at her high school, a misery compounded by her strict mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) insistence that she participate in nauseating beauty pageants. Her dad (Daniel Stern), while a lovable sort, has an obsession with football while living with a wife and two daughters. With no real plan for the future, and a general fear about opposing her mom, Bliss just goes with the flow to avoid acrimony on the home front.
Then, while on a shopping trip in Austin, Bliss is handed a flyer for an upcoming female roller derby event. She lies to her parents about going to a football game, attends a derby, and is instantly hooked. She pulls her Barbie skates out of an old trunk, practices a bit, and blows away the competition at tryouts. Before long, she is Babe Ruthless, super jammer for the Hurl Scouts.
For the Hurl Scouts, and other competing derby girls, Barrymore has assembled a great cast, including herself as Whole Foods checkout girl turned derby monster Smashley Simpson. The stars handle both the humor and athleticism admirably. I especially liked Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, the most motherly of the group. Wiig gets a chance to really act in the movie, as opposed to the pure comic roles she’s usually handed. She’s funny here, but her character shows a lot of heart, too.
Other supporting players include Juliette Lewis as a rival skater, a part that amounts to the film’s villain. She causes some trouble, but she’s not a cartoon villain in any way, and Lewis mixes in the right amount of menace and vulnerability. Andrew Wilson gets perhaps his best role yet as Razor, coach of the Hurl Scouts. Actually, his turn as Beef Supreme in Idiocracy was a bit cooler.
As for the skate scenes, there are some moments that look staged and silly, but Barrymore, her cast and her editor make the action look passably realistic for the most part. It helps that many of the times you see a character skating, you can see that it’s the actress playing the part and not some stunt skater. It gives the movie an authentic feel, even if some of the moves the characters inflict on one another aren’t exactly regulation (according to a derby skating friend of mine).
Page, who passed on the chance to be in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell to play Bliss, made a wise decision. It’s good to see her do another riff on high school life after her star turn in Juno, and now it’s time for her to take on some more adult roles. I’m sure she’s up to that challenge.
My roller derby friend is constantly talking about aches and pains and bruises after bouts, and having to practice all the time. Before seeing Whip It, I always told her that she was insane to take part in the sport. I think this movie does a good job of showing why derby appeals to her and the many who participate.
It’s also a good film about family dynamics, friendship, and finding your way in life. Barrymore shows she can direct a movie with style and substance, and I’m looking forward to her future efforts behind the camera. As for Page, she’s one of my favorite actresses going right now, and Whip It is a big reason for that.