I suppose you could say this is a bit of a chick flick today. You wouldn’t be entirely correct though.
Now I’m singing Devo songs.
Seventeen-year-old Bliss Cavendar is a social misfit in a small town near Austin, Texas. Her mother has made her a part of the teen beauty pageant circuit, but Bliss is more interested in her secret after-school career in the Roller Derby. With the help of Bliss, or Babe Ruthless as she becomes known, the Hurl Scouts go from eternal losers all the way to a place in the championship bout, but when her parents find out what she’s been up to, everything looks like it will come crashing down. Chickfights ensue.
So, after the real-life rollergirls of Leave It On The Track, here is the (semi-)fictional version. Whip It is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, written by Shauna Cross. Cross adapted the script from her novel Derby Girl which was based on her own experiences as a skater in the TXRD league, where she was better known as Maggie Mayhem. As a cross between a coming-of-age flick and a sports movie, it is pretty successful. While the script might seem as if it never met a cliche it didn’t like, it has the good grace to never dwell on things. The story just keeps rattling right along like a jammer lapping the pack (that will make sense after you watch the film). While we’re on that topic, this flick is paced exceptionally well, particularly for a first feature. It is obvious that all that time on film sets has paid off for Barrymore. She clearly understands the story she wants to tell and the most efficient way to tell it. The dialogue is strong too. People here talk the way people really talk, with wit and humour but without that affected style that has popped up all over the place in the wake of Juno and its ilk.
No other actress does “rebellious but non-threatening teenager” quite like Ellen Page* and the role of Bliss is a great fit for her. Here is a girl who spends most of the film lying to basically everybody in her life in one way or another, but who still manages to engage your support and sympathy. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern play her parents; the pushy (but never remotely villainous) mother and the decent yet clueless father. Among Bliss’ teammates, the only one with any real presence in the story is SNL’s latest beakout star Kristen Wiig as the Hurl Scouts captain Maggie Mayhem. The other girls are all likeable and fun, but remain little more than sketches, including Barrymore herself as Smashley Simpson. Although he isn’t given any more depth of character than anyone else, Andrew Wilson is splendidly grumpy as Razor, the Scouts’ coach. I am reliably informed he is based on Jonny Stranger, the real-life manager of TXRD’s Hellcats and one of the stars of Leave It On The Track. There is definitely a bit of a physical resemblance at least.
The championship face-off team, the Holy Rollers, are led by Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven. Unfortunately, Maven is a bit of a cartoon villain: she takes an instant dislike to Bliss and it seems none of the other players really like her much either. She gets a token speech to explain the situation that looks like it was tacked on just for this very purpose. The gist of it is that she doesn’t like Bliss because she is younger and more naturally talented than her. Yeah, that just seems like a cop-out excuse. Could Cross and Barrymore not come up with a more organic reason than that? Another minor niggle I have is with the bout sequences themselves. After seeing the real thing in action, these bouts seem rather tame and buttoned-down by comparison. Even just a little more noise from the crowds would have sold the idea better.
The tagline on the poster reads “Be your own hero”; a line spoken by Maggie Mayhem near the start (with a refreshing lack of fanfare) which is also the overarching theme of the movie. This is a story about Bliss realising who she really is, and gaining the strength of character to make her own way in the world even if that means going against what her parents wanted for her. It is a strong message for anyone, especially but not just teenage girls. In these days of the plague of celebrity and “reality” tv, it is reassuring to see that kind of independence and free-thinking being encouraged. It’s just a shame so few people actually saw the flick.
*That’s actually a compliment. Yes, really.