You 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.
Li’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.