In the sport of Roller Derby, sometimes you need to “throw a hit”, which is exactly what it sounds like. In her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore fails to throw a hit but “Whip It” scrapes out a victory on the strength of its characters, its script, and its lovely and talented lead, Ellen Page.
Living in Bodine, Texas, Bliss (Page) is painfully out of place and she knows it. Struggling to find a way to break free of the mundane existence of small-town life and the beauty pageants thrust upon her by her former-beauty queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss runs across the Hurl Scouts, a roller derby team that become her new heroes through their ass-kickery and in spite of their impressive losing streak. But when she pays “Maggie Mayhem” (Kristen Wiig —also, the roller-derby names in this movie are amazing) this compliment, Maggie encourages her to “strap on some skates and be her own hero.” Following this advice, Bliss joins the Hurl Scouts and finds not only her strength but her identity. It’s a fantastic female empowerment flick that isn’t about catty backstabbing or swooning for boys. Bliss does fall hard for a guy in an indie rock band but that relationship doesn’t undermine the feminist punk-rock attitude.
Unfortunately, that attitude only seems to go as far as the setting and the music. “Whip It” is yet another case for why we need a new rating in between “PG-13” and “R” because this is a movie that should be seen by teenage girls but it needs the “R”-rating to provide greater authenticity and to throw some hits. I imagine a group of women like this to be swearing like sailors but since the word “fuck” would forever scar the children of the nation, you won’t hear that out of these brawlers. Also, for a brutal sport like roller derby where players are beating the crap out of their opponents while skating at a high speed, there’s only one bloody nose and some hidden bruises; there’s not a black-eye or broken bone in sight.
But even if it didn’t have the arbitrary restraints of the MPAA, “Whip It” still wouldn’t pack the visual punch that the film desperately needs. Barrymore plays it conservatively and in a film centered around roller derby, there needs to be some kind of flair or risk in the filmmaking and it’s disappointing when Shauna Cross’s screenplay (adapted from her book “Derby Girl”) paints such an exciting world filled with fun female characters played by talented actresses.
And with a few exceptions, her cast doesn’t let her down. The Hurl Scouts are played by great group of diverse performers with comedian Wiig, stuntwoman Zoe Bell, and hip-hop artist Eve, Alia Shawkat feels completely real as Bliss’ best friend Pash, but this film rides with Ellen Page and she soars. At only 22, Page has mastered the ability to mix rebellion with vulnerability. More impressive, this kind of performance won’t lead to typecasting because her career has only just begun and she’s talented enough to go far beyond this kind of role. That’s not to say that she’s just coasting through the film but the only thing that’s more exciting than her work in “Whip It” is what she’ll do next.
The only disadvantage of a cast this strong is that the weak links become even more apparent. “Weak Link A” is Juliette Lewis as the leader of the best team in the league, the Holy Rollers. As Iron Maven, Lewis lacks the skill and her role lacks the depth to make the character anything more than a cartoon villain who would be better suited to an 80s teensploitation flick than a movie like “Whip It”. “Weak Link B” is Jimmy Fallon as the announcer and the character is supposed to be dorky to a point but Fallon is just obnoxious, unfunny, and you’ll want him to shut up as you easily think of at least five actors who could do a better job.
None of the negatives of “Whip It” are enough to ruin the film but they do slow down the movie to good when it had the potential to be great. Nevertheless, its strengths do make it a unique flick in today’s landscape of American cinema and it’s worth your time due to Cross’ script, the great cast, and to see Ellen Page continue being terrific.
Rating —– B-