I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Whip It

tn_whipitYou know how it is. You have low self-esteem, or you have to move alot so you don’t do good in school, or you do do good in school but people pick on you, or you get kicked out of school, or you don’t get along with your parents, or you don’t have any parents. But then you find out about breakdancing or karate or illegal street racing or lambada (the forbidden dance) or civil war re-enacting or vegetarianism or whatever. Your eyes are opened to an exciting new world, you meet colorful new friends and rivals, you work real hard and train and almost give up but you have to prove something to somebody or to yourself or to both, so you go to the big tournament or championship or whatever. Well, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut WHIP IT is about a girl finding herself through roller derby, and I was hoping it would be a little smarter version of that type of story. A generic plot that manipulates you in an obvious but enjoyable way, and that pays tribute to a sport I happen to enjoy. Like, say, DRUMLINE with girls on rollerskates. Or BRING IT ON with tattoos. That’s all I was hoping for, but WHIP IT turns out to be way better than I was hoping.

Whip ItLi’l Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year old girl from the backwater town of Bodeen, Texas who defies her parents by secretly bussing into Austin and skating in the roller derby. Unlike her characters in HARD CANDY and JUNO this one’s not a knowitall hipster – she’s a timid, awkward smart girl who does okay in the beauty pageants her mom pushes her into. It’s shocking even to her best friend when she falls in love with derby and decides to “grow some balls” and put her tiny little body on the line. Her mom wants her to be something she’s not, but she’s not your usual ballbusting mom like would be played by, say, Marcia Gay Harden… although in this case yes, she does happen to be played by Marcia Gay Harden. Actually mom makes an effort to do things that would make her daughter happy, like bringing her into Austin to buy Doc Martens. She tries, but they don’t usually connect.

You know I’m a fan of the old documentary DERBY. But I’ve also enjoyed the modern all-female version of the sport that has less in common with wrestling and more with punk rock or something. It started in Austin in the early 2000s, I think sort of ironically, or at least as kitsch. But as the skaters got more involved it became more serious and grew into this self-sustaining entity. There’s a pretty enjoyable movie about how it started called HELL ON WHEELS, one of those documentaries that’s not necessarily great filmatism but just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture some interesting events. But their success inspired other leagues that popped up all around the country.

Here in Seattle the main league is called the Rat City Roller Girls. They used to skate with people crammed into a hangar from a Naval Air Station that was decommissioned in 1970. It had kind of a Mad Max vibe. But after the Supersonics left Seattle last year Rat City started skating in the Key Arena. I think the girls in WHIP IT might scoff at this environment as too corporate, but I love it. It’s like “that arena’s not good enough for you, Sonics? Fuck you then, we’ll take it.”

There’s a weird mix of feminism, camp and a touch of burlesque (they tend to be attractive and wear short skirts), but it’s also fun because of the genuine athleticism and competition. The high rate of scoring raises the potential for dramatic comebacks and last second victories. There are many different skating styles and skater sizes – big or small it’s amazing to watch them contort their bodies to weave through crowds of aggressors while rolling at high speeds. They’re not really clobbering each other like everybody says. I only saw somebody get punched once, and the puncher was roundly booed as she left the arena without having to be told that she was ejected. But they do get fucked up. They break bones. It sure doesn’t look easy. It’s entertaining to watch.

So I’m predisposed to like a movie about roller derby, but it also would’ve bothered me more than some (or at least made me laugh more) if it had been less FIGHTING and more NEVER BACK DOWN. I thought they did a good job – they get away with more blows than they would at least in Seattle, and it’s simplified so you don’t have to understand the more arcane rules about penalties or keep track of 15 skaters per team. But they communicate the basic idea of scoring and the actresses all seem to really be skating. Page especially looks like she’s good at it. They have some great shots following them on the track (I bet they studied how it was done in DERBY). More importantly I thought it was true to the spirit of the subculture – they’re friends having fun, but also trying to be good at what they do. You want to see your team win, but in derby it really honestly isn’t about winning.

Bliss skates as the Hurl Scout “Babe Ruthless” and her teammates include Zoe Bell, the rapper Eve, Barrymore and Kristen Wiig, who I kind of hate on Saturday Night Live but really liked in EXTRACT and in this. Wiig is the most developed of the skaters, playing sort of a mentor. Barrymore is more of a director cameo role, coming in occasionally for comic relief, and it’s cool to see Bell but she’s mostly skating. It’s not as much about the skaters as about Bliss’s relationships with her best friend and especially with her parents. The most impressive supporting role is Daniel Stern as her dad. He’s really relatable as a beer-bellied, football loving dad who seems to understand his daughter a little better than his wife, but knows how to avoid conflict by staying out of it.

It’s also about her relationship with her home town. It’s such a common thing but not something you see in movies all the time. They always have the character who wants to leave for the other side of the country, but not usually the kids who live out in the boonies or the suburbs who think the biggest nearby city is fuckin paradise. I think derby sort of means Austin to her, and Austin means getting away from Bodeen, and getting away from Bodeen means getting away from her parents, and getting away from her parents means finding independence and becoming a woman. And the last shot in the movie I think shows without words that she has made peace with all of those things.

Maybe it’s just me. I’ve read one negative review that I thought missed the point of the movie, and a bunch of positive ones that didn’t seem to see what I saw in it. I saw a movie that maybe takes the spine of that young-person-learns-about-herself-by-triumphing-in-unusual-sport-or-subculture story, but at almost every point where those stories normally turn into phony Hollywood bullshit it goes the other way. It doesn’t try to make derby bigger than it really is – it’s a ragtag sport in a crappy warehouse, there’s no famous skaters or killer teams from out of town. There’s no supervillain – Juliette Lewis’s “Iron Maven” is a bitch, but  she’s not evil, you can see where she’s coming from. The parents don’t magically switch from tyrants to understanding – they’re well meaning from the beginning, they make mistakes, they learn, but never fully understand. So when there is a touching moment it feels earned.

(Not that it’s 100% bullshit free. Have you ever noticed how kids in movies always have some beautiful indoor swimming pool they can freely break into at night? Also I believe it was shot BATTLE IN SEATTLE style – some choice bits in the real Austin for flavoring, the rest shot in Michigan. But I think the sincerity overwhelms the minor movie compromises.)

I like Drew Barrymore. And I’m not just saying that because she knows E.T. personally. I don’t watch all the movie’s she’s in but when I do she seems so genuine and sincere that it’s hard not to like her. For example in the movies where she falls in love with an Adam Sandler or a Jimmy Fallon or somebody, they seem to work better than other movies of their type because I’m convinced she really does adore that chump. You see it in her eyes and in her smile. In the C’s A’s movies she seems really into it too, like she’s just having a great time. She can be giggly and corny but she seems to wear her heart on her sleeve and not really care what anybody thinks about her. And that personality comes through in her directing. It doesn’t seem like any of the emotions are put into this movie because that’s what you do in a story like this – it seems like she really feels them.

It has all the scenes you expect in a movie like this, but also little moments that you wouldn’t. For example, after the scene where the parents find out she’s been lying to them and chew her out, and Bliss tells them off and storms out of the room, it stays in the room with the parents as Stern puts his hand on Harden’s shoulder and asks if she’s okay, and you feel for them. It would be so much easier to go the “parents just don’t understand” route and then have them see her skate at the end and instantly become supportive. But Barrymore doesn’t make anything that simple. It’s definitely a feel good heartwarmer type movie, but everything is not magically repaired at the end.

Well, shit. I admit it. I loved this particular girl movie. I’m not expecting most of you to feel as strongly, but that’s just the way it is. I’m feeling all empowered and what not so I’m taking a stand. You and Marcia Gay Harden are just gonna have to deal with it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 5th, 2009 at 2:20 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

32 Responses to “Whip It”

  1. GRIM GRINNING CHRIS

    October 5th, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I just went from zero interest in this to “I wanna see this right now”, Vern. Based on your great review overall, and also two words IN that review… Zoe… Bell. Tiny role or not, I will see anything that I know she is in now. Thanks.

  2. i didn’t think much about this the first time i saw it advertised, but maybe it’s something i can get into. i’ll keep an eye out when it’s coming to dvd.

  3. Great review, Vern. I loved the movie too. I was a nerdy small town girl who got into punk rock subculture as a teenager, and this movie just *got it* in a way that other movies never have.

  4. Three or four of the Austin rollergirls used to break into the pool at my old apartment complex — in the middle of the day. They didn’t live there, that’s why they were breaking in. They were moderately attractive I guess but they seemed to thrive more on the “you should love me because I have a tattoo of a chick in a martini glass on my arm” vibe. Which isn’t really my thing. The whole rollergirl shtick seems like just that to me — an act that they drop occasionally so that they can cry and show their sensitive side. Perhaps this whole aspect of the culture gets explored in depth in “Whip It” and I could get past my boredom of having yet another girl try and shove it in my face that yes, she is indeed the raddest chick I’ve ever seen.

    I just realized that I have become an old, old man.

  5. I thought this movie was fucking awesome. What impressed me the most about Barrymore’s directing is how genuine the performances were – she’s great with her actors. And seeing Daniel Stern playing a kind of grown up Cyril from “Breaking Away” sealed the deal for me. Plus, girls skating around in fishnet stockings. In retrospect, it woulda been kinda impossible for me not to love it.

  6. One Guy from Andromeda

    October 5th, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    no way in hell am i going to see this, but i appreciate your honesty in liking it vern. it hasn’t been easy for your father and me, and i am not sure i will ever understand, but if this is what you want to do you have our full support. we love you son, and take care on the road! *sniff*

  7. That forbidden dance aside cracked me up, probably more than it should have done. Good work.

  8. I really liked it but I’m afraid to admit it to anybody.

    RIP Sonics.

  9. Jareth Cutestory

    October 6th, 2009 at 7:13 am

    Vern: not sure if you’ve seen it or not, but you might find Brian Herzlinger’s MY DATE WITH DREW a bit of a lark. Which is not to suggest that your comments on Barrymore in your WHIP IT review come across as obsessive.

  10. Remember when she flashed her tits to Letterman?

  11. Vern, did you happen to catch the chud review? It actually reads as an interesting accompaniment to yours.

  12. Walsh – That was actually the negative review I was referring to. Yeah, his review is kind of the reverse of mine because it seemed to me like he was complaining that it wasn’t the empty, phony roller derby movie that I was praising it for not being. It’s a movie about a girl’s relationship with her mother and he complained that there was too much time spent on the part about the mother. I also didn’t understand his complaint about the Manson Sisters – he said they weren’t in it enough and he didn’t understand until the end that they were deaf. But they were a cameo for some actual skaters – they’re only featured in a couple scenes in the first one is about them being deaf.

    I mean I would’ve also liked to see a dumb movie where there was more derby, but this more heartfelt approach is better in my opinion.

  13. Well, one thing’s for sure Vern, you’ve definitely got me wanting to check out some local roller girls. Down here in Portland we have the whole Rose City Rollers league. There’s over six teams, all in various shades of ink. From the looks of it they just play each other, but you’re more into it than me, so I’ll ask: does Portland every play Seattle, and if so, does that make us rivals? I would so hate for us to be rivals.

    Actually, that does make me wonder. Your review focuses on play within cities, but how big does this get? Is there a world series for Whip-Itters? Finally, does anyone here remember that show that was on after GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) where the roller teams fought in very stagey matches, and sometimes there was a crocodile pit? Anyone, or have I been hoofing paint thinner again.

  14. Bad Seed – Each city league has a set of teams (Seattle has four) that play against each other throughout the season. But they also have all star teams that travel around and compete against other cities, with regional championships and all that. Apparently in March your team beat Seattle by a slim margin, god damn you.

  15. ha ha. Fantastic opening paragraph.

  16. @ Down here in Portland we have the whole Rose City Rollers league.

    I was friends with some of the girls from the one called High Rollers. Pretty cool girls. I went to one of their “bouts” but sports aren’t really my thing.

  17. That’s the hardest I’ve laughed in weeks: thanks Vern! Now I have to see some games. After all, this winning streak needs my support.

  18. Saw it tonight, and it was awesome. Most of the time I prefer movies about guys with big knives, but I didn’t even mind the total lack of stabbing. It’s pretty rare when a feel-good movie actually has the capacity to make you feel good. It was just so adorable that I pretty much wanted to make out with everyone in it, even—no, especially—Daniel Stern.

  19. Hey Vern, nice review. You continue to do a great job of spotlighting the ass-kicking chicks in the pantheon of bad-ass cinema. I definitely wanted to see this as I know a couple of women who’ve been Rat City Rollergirls and I’ve enjoyed their bouts. I like that they’ve got the arena now (more comfortable seats, better views) but I kinda miss the old hangar. The fan response seemed more intense there but it was probably because everyone was more packed in and concentrated. I’m not into sports generally but I like roller derby and WNBA, ‘cuz the tickets are cheaper, the crowd seems more positive, and the competition is still intense but friendlier.

  20. We’ve got several Derby Teams here in Oregon, mostly in Portland/Salem/Bend.

    I dated a girl from the Wicked Pussycats for a short while. That girl could’ve broken me in two at her discretion. What can I say, I like dominating women with tattoos and multi-colored hair.

    Also, no punching in Whip It? Cause the girls who skate here are known for on-rink brawls. Thats half the fun of watching. Nothing like watching a girl you are seeing beat the shit out of a male referee twice her size.

  21. Saw this last night based solely on your review, Vern, and I was not disappointed. I felt some of it was a little clumsy, though. For example, the scene where she knocks the girl at school off the railing kinda came out of nowhere and ended just as abruptly. I mean, I see what they were going for, but I don’t think it was set up appropriately enough to be meaningful and ended up just being jarring. But I agree with almost everything in the review, and Barrymore was hilarious. My girlfriend literally could not stop laughing for a good five minutes after that sequence early on when Barrymore catches an elbow to the face.

  22. Wow.

    You know, maybe Ferrera has taken Vern’s advice, and using DTV to do his (fucked up) thing.

  23. I read the Snipes/Ferrara story on Dark Horizons and was under the impression it was going to be a theatrical release (I actually got really excited about Wesley’s return to the big screen). Boy is that article snarky though – the shootouts in King of New York are freaking amazing, but I get the feeling the author’s never seen it or he wouldn’t be questioning Ferrara’s ability to handle action.

  24. Thanks for the news. Fuck that article, but great news. I’m betting it won’t be straight up action like it says (I’m not sure Ferrara is interested in that), but either way that’s huge.

    Got some new reviews coming, but I wanted to leave WHIP IT at the top for a while because it seems to need an extra boost. Underdogs don’t always succeed as well at the box office as they do in the movies.

  25. Wait, I take it back – it has Zoe Bell and Robert Davi in it. So it might actually be a straight action movie. Also, the Zoe Bell part makes it sort of relevant to WHIP IT.

    Here’s the original Variety article:

    http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118009669.html?categoryid=13&cs=1&nid=2564

  26. King of New York gets watched once a year in my household. Such a great movie.

    King of the Gypsies also gets the once a year treatment.

    Lot of King going on.

  27. The guy’s on At The Movies gave Whip It some praise this week. I don’t know how much that will help but it’s something.

  28. I’m not worried about Whip It. Maybe the masses can’t be mobilized at this particular point in time, but when a bunch of manly motherfuckers like us enjoy it as much as the idiotic teenage girls sitting behind me at the movie theater, it’s bound to make a bundle on DVD.

  29. I saw this movie last night with my wife. It’s a great date movie. I didn’t expect much, but was pleasantly surprised. Good review.

  30. Hey, I was looking forward to seeing this but was out of the country on vacation until a few days ago and figured it would be out of cinemas by the time I got back. But it wasn’t, and I saw it and really liked it. It warmed my heart like a pop tart.

    I live in the Quebec region of Canada and have enjoyed the odd roller derby match. The culture of the sport is a lot different in my parts. It’s more of a lesbian thing. I go to matches with my lesbian buddies and most of the crowd is gay women couples and the skaters themselves are also for the most part pretty butch and not what I would call sexy looking.

    I had seen Kansas City Bomber and that movie definately portrays the sport more like wrestling in its contrived spectacle but the matches I’ve seen don’t feel like that and neither did this movie.

    I think Page gives a really great performance in this and I agree with Vern about it sidestepping the usual bullshit trappings. Early on I was kinda expecting not to like the movie by the time it ended because the character of the controlling mum and the indie music boyfriend felt really cliched but the movie went on to give those characters the type of dimensions that those types of people have in real life such as the mum not being evil and insanely insecure and the indie music guy not being mr. perfect.

    Really good flick. Glad I saw it.

  31. No idea when this is due out in the U.K., but the trailer sold me on it, and now Vern confirms it: must see for me.

    Re: Ferrara & action – don’t forget that he shot episodes of Miami Vice and Crime Story that really pushed the envelope of what you could get away with on TV at the time. Crime Story’s pilot in particular has him making great use of breaking glass and damage to the surrounding environment to sell the violence without loads of blood bags – he always managed to make it feel rough, sharp and unexpected rather than slick and polished.

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