I was eagerly curious about Whip It, since it starred Ellen Page (Juno) and was Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. It seemed like a girl-friendly flick, but I’d heard mixed things, and it didn’t seem to play in my area very long.
So a prompt DVD release is a great idea. I don’t have much interest in roller derby on its own, but I did appreciate that the movie (and the novel it was based on, Derby Girl, reissued under this new title) was written by a former participant, Shauna Cross. You can see a brief promo video of her talking about writing the movie free on Amazon.
What I found was a thrilling, touching coming-of-age story with plenty of both humor and action and a great cast. Kristen Wiig (mentor), Juliette Lewis (rival), Zoe Bell and Eve (teammates), and Barrymore (as “Smashley Simpson”) are skaters, and Jimmy Fallon is the announcer who explains the game to the viewers. Alia Shawkat (the girl cousin on Arrested Development) is a standout as the best friend.
Page plays Bliss, a small-town Texas girl pushed by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to compete in beauty pageants as her way out of town. Instead, on a trip to Austin, she finds out about roller derby, and soon she’s sneaking off to try out for the team, intrigued by the power and freedom of the girls on skates. (The scene where she first sees them, dropping off flyers, rang very true — KC was at the local independent record store one day when a group of roller girls on skates came in and did the same thing.) Bliss has been seeking a way to rebel against the football/pageant culture, and her waitress job isn’t it. Turns out, even on Barbie skates, she’s fast and spunky.
Bliss finds achievement, friends, love, and the ability to stand up for herself. (Mom later says something about her daughter being “too Bohemian to care” after Bliss hip-checks a rival at school.) This is the kind of movie that, seen at the right time by the right person, can change a life. It encourages striving and finding different ways to do things and alternate families, made up of those who understand you and what you want. I also liked the way that, although there are various remarks about chicks in fishnets on skates, Bliss as “Babe Ruthless” is fully covered and no one says a word, while the older women (most players are mid-thirties) can choose to reveal what they want. The way the roller derby matches are filmed makes them exciting.
It’s a mostly female world, full of those who can support you and those who aren’t shy about doing whatever they can to compete with you and those who inspire you. Even though I’m no longer fighting to be able to do what I want in life, I was impressed by these strong, tough, confident women who compare which has the gnarlier bruise. Particularly funny is previously unknown Wilson brother Andrew as the team coach, and dad’s a hoot too, as played by Daniel Stern; he calls her “blister”.
This is an “alien child” movie, where you wonder how that girl ever came from those parents, but that probably says something about how much people change when they settle into adulthood. KC says he remembers watching and liking roller derby because the women’s teams did exactly the same things the men did and were treated exactly the same. It’s a shame that the same rules don’t apply to movies. Because I’m suspicious this way, I think this film would have gotten more support and love if it wasn’t all about the women, even though anyone can identify with Bliss’ struggles. Maybe instead it just lost the marketing game of roulette, so not enough people knew about it.
This plot isn’t original — there have been plenty of movies about growing up through sports competition, even though few of them star women beyond A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham, and Stick It — but it’s creative in its variations, and it’s always good-humored, with plenty of awe-inducing camaraderie. Moreover, it’s nuanced, providing alternate viewpoints on such things as Bliss’ relationships, whether with her parents, her competitors, or her boyfriend (who is chastised not for doing bad stuff but for not doing enough good stuff). I really enjoyed the movie, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it. I’d encourage you to, too, especially if you appreciate tough chicks.
The only extras are nine deleted scenes, including an alternate opening. One final nice touch is that the DVD package is green plastic, to coordinate with the Hurl Scouts’ team theme. After watching, I’m left with an encouraging feeling of strength remembering what Wiig’s character Maggie Mayhem says: “Put some skates on. Be your own hero.” (The studio provided a review copy.)