There’s nothing groundbreaking about Whip It, the directorial debut of American sweetheart Drew Barrymore. It’s the dance movie where the hero or heroine learns about life through ballet or hip hop. Or it’s the Spelling Bee movie where the main character learns self confidence at the Scripps National competition. In this case the back drop is the wild and wacky world of women’s Roller Derby, but the story is very familiar.
Based on the Shauna Cross novel Derby Girl Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar an unhappy teenager from small town Texas who suffers from adolescent ennui. She’s Juno without the pregnancy or the sharp tongue. She’s tired of beauty pageants, her over protective mother and being seventeen. When she stumbles across a flyer for a female Roller Derby league in nearby Austin she sees a way out of her mundane life. Turns out she has a natural ability as a derby demon, and an equally natural ability at attracting skinny guitar players. Soon enough, though, she realizes that skinny guitar players aren’t always the best dates and just because she’s found a new family at the roller rink she can’t throw her old family away.
The world of female roller derby is a colorful, eccentric world that should really lend itself to a rollicking big screen treatment. Unfortunately Whip It doesn’t do it justice. First time director Drew Barrymore gets some of the details right—the women all have fun, campy names like Bloody Holly, Smashly Simpson and Babe Ruthless, and play for teams with names like the Hurl Scouts—but the Roller Derby sequences don’t have the over-the-top rock ‘n’ roll feel they should have. The game scenes are too genteel by half and could have used a bit more rough and tumble energy. It is worth noting however, that the actors seem to be doing their own stunts and some of their falls look quite realistic and quite painful but it isn’t enough to make it feel like authentic down and dirty roller derby.
The feminist aspect of the story—roller derby is often associated with third wave feminism—is blunted because the game is more a plot device than the focus of the story. There is camaraderie among the women on the team and their journey is quite interesting but the film too often detours from the roller rink to Bliss’s love life or struggle with her family.
Barrymore does some good work here. She does a nice job at wordlessly showing Bliss’s alienation in the scene where she takes a bus to her roller derby audition. As she physically leaves the town she has come to hate you get the sense that in her mind she had really left years before. It’s a nicely handled bit of business as is a touching “please don‘t judge me” sequence late in the film between Bliss and her parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern). There’s also some very funny moments and a show stopping performance from Eulala Scheel (Harden’s real life daughter) as Bliss’s younger sister.
But for all the well handled moments there are still the bungled derby scenes which should have added real punch to the story, but instead don’t make much of an impression. If you want to see the real deal derby check out Hell On Wheels, a documentary about the creation of the all-female roller derby league in Austin, Texas in 2001.