Roller Derby is a sport primed for cinematic treatment. A fast paced game of passion and pageantry played by colorful and attractive women, chock full of good-natured violence and brimming with personality. It is a rowdy, populist sport, reborn screaming from the heart of Texas in a deluge of Lone Star beer and fishnets where the leagues are owned by the players and the players are doing it for the love. From inspirational to exploitational, there are a thousand potential Roller Derby movies just waiting to be made. Whip It, despite its potential, is not a great Roller Derby movie. However, in focusing on what it isn’t (a great Roller Derby movie), one runs the risk of missing what it is (an empowering and potentially great movie for teen girls). More after the jump:
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a seventeen year old Bodeen Texas outcast, waiting tables at the Oink Joint BBQ with her BFF Pash (Alia Shawkat, IE Maeby from Arrested Development) and losing beauty pageants to the chagrin of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). On a trip into the big city (Austin), while attempting to convince mom to buy combat boots at a head shop, Bliss snags a flyer for the TXRD, Austin’s largest Roller Derby league (we have more than one). After sneaking to a bout, Bliss finds herself lying about her age, strapping on skates and auditioning for a spot on the (last place, of course) HurScouts. What she lacks in size and aggression, she makes up for with speed, thus earning a spot on the team and a place in sports cliche history.
Whip It is really two competing movies. On the one hand, you have an “eccentric-goofballs-come-from-behind” sports movie, ala Slap Shot. On the other, a “meek-small-town-girl-finds-herself” movie in the vein of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or I Spit on Your Grave (I don’t watch enough of those kinds of movies). Time and again, the second movie wins out, which is kind of a shame, because Drew Barrymore has assembled all of the pieces for a potentially rocking Roller Derby sports flick. The rollergirls consist of Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe (fucking) Bell and Juliette Lewis. That’s a great potential lineup. Potential, however, is all that is there. With the exception of Wiig and, to an extent, Lewis, the supporting Hurl Scouts are almost totally wasted. How do you cast Zoe Bell in your movie, put her on roller skates and not feature the ever living hell out of that shit? That being said, natural charisma goes a long way and even in thankless, underwritten parts, my biggest complaint was that I wanted to see more of the characters. If this were the pilot to a TV show, I would probably watch it, so I guess that says something.
As a director, Barrymore is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some really inspired moments, including a really beautiful underwater love scene and the Derby is mostly well choreographed and easy to follow, but much of the action falls flat and important emotional beats fail to hit as hard as they should.
Despite its flaws, I liked Whip It. As one might expect from a Drew Barrymore movie, the whole thing has a fun, goofy, sweet natured charm that carries it over its (ample) rough moments, while Page and Shawkat anchor the film with a pair of awesome performances. And then, there’s that whole “empowering for teen girls” thing. Too many movies aimed at this demographic are absolutely loaded with shallow(nerdy, smart girl learns to put all that aside and be pretty for her man), if not downright poisonous (everything from Stephenie Meyer) messages. Here we have that rare teen-girl movie that goes against that spirit-crushing grain, in which the protagonist puts aside pretty dresses and boys to find her own self worth and follow her personal passions. It made me want to be a better woman.
Whip It takes place in a very specific Austin Texas subculture, one that I am pretty intimately familiar with, and Barrymore gets the sights and sounds just about right. No complaints about the transfer.
Extras are slim pickings. You get:
- 9 deleted scenes
- Fox Movie Channel Presents Writer’s Draft: Shauna Cross of Whip It
- A digital copy of the movie
I was looking forward to the Shauna Cross feature. She was a real derby girl and wrote the screenplay based on her own novel. Unfortunately, it is about five minutes long. A sort of informative five minutes but not enough to warrant buying the disk if you weren’t already planning to.
If you’re looking for good roller derby-based entertainment, you’re probably better off checking out A&E’s Rollergirls TV show from a few years back. Both the derby action and drama are better there. If, however, you are the parent of a teen girl or a teen girl yourself (Hey Bethany, wassup girl?) try Whip It. You’ll feel good about yourself afterward.