Directed by Drew Barrymore; screenplay by Shauna Cross, from her novel
This is the role that we’ve been waiting for Ellen Page to get since making her mark in Juno. Bliss Cavendar is neither as smart-ass nor as confident as Juno MacGuff, the sardonic high school girl who gets pregnant and chooses to carry it to term for adoptive parents. She’s a lot more real in Whip It, a restless girl in a suburb of a suburb, enduring one young miss beauty pageant after another at the urging of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who comes off like a stage mom obsessed with appearances—she is, after all, a former pageant queen herself—but is really more pragmatic. As a mail carrier with a blue-collar husband (Daniel Stern as the warmly supportive dad relegated to the margins of the film) and a solid but drab suburban home in the heart of football country, she sees pageants as lessons in poise and public speaking and a shot as scholarships. That doesn’t make Bliss any more excited about the grind or the girlie makeovers.
On one of her brief escapes from Bodeen, Texas, during a shopping trip with mom (where their fashion tastes collide once again) in the nearby hipster metropolis of Austin, she finds a flyer for the local roller derby squad—fan favorites and perennial losers the Hurl Scouts—and fakes a bout of school spirit to sneak off for a match with her best friend (Alia Shawkat), who just wants to know if any cute boys will be there. It’s a match made in heaven for Bliss. “You’re my new heroes,” she gushes to the team’s mother hen, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig, sublimely down-to-earth both on and off the track), and soon Bliss is back for try-outs and a spot on the squad, lying about her age to the team and about her extracurricular activities to her parents. The pocket rocket sparks the team into high gear and a sudden winning streak, but while she brings the speed and the scores (the film provides an easy-to-follow, playfully illustrated tutorial on the rules and tactics of the sport), she’s less comfortable with the body checks and bruiser attitude that comes naturally to her teammates, especially scrappy sweetheart Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore). Smashley is a wild child who treats the sport more like playground roughhousing. Scoring points is secondary to a satisfying thumping on the opposing team.
Drew Barrymore doesn’t throw any elbows into the familiar formula in her directorial debut. All the familiar life lessons, about trust and truth and boys and family, are rolled out between the matches, and everything comes down to the championship game against the league champions and Bliss’ nemesis, league tough girl Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, all competitive zeal beneath her swagger and sneers). It’s a coming of age tale, to be sure, but it’s more than sex and personal responsibility. It’s about self-empowerment and self-image and the recognition of others on the road to discovering yourself. Barrymore, directing from a semi-autobiographical book adapted to the screen by its author, Shauna Cross, embraces the self-expression of this riot grrrl-style roller derby tale and fills the film with team spirit and high energy.
What’s most exhilarating about Whip It isn’t the speed demon thrills, however. It’s the inclusiveness and the respect the film gives these women. This is a film set in working class America, a reality that the movies so rarely show anymore, and apart from Bliss, they are all grown women in low-wage jobs who have found something in the sport that they can call their own. While we only get glimpses of their lives outside of the track, the few shots of Marcia Gay Harden doing her mail route speaks volumes about the realities of all of their lives. Putting on the skates and pads, donning the helmets, they become characters of their own making—Bloody Holly, Rosa Sparks, Eva Destruction, whatever—and put their all into the track and the team. The attraction and the thrill they get is more than simple adrenaline, and it is palpable and contagious. I’ll bet we’ll see Seattle’s own Rat City Rollergirls get a surge of support in the wake of Whip It.