Whip It (2009, USA)

Title: Whip It
Release Date: October 2009
Director: Drew Barrymore
Writer: Shauna Cross

Ellen Page: Bliss Cavendar
Marcia Gay Harden: Brooke Cavendar
Kristen Wiig: Maggie Mayhem
Drew Barrymore: Smashley Simpson
Juliette Lewis: Iron Maven
Jimmy Fallon: ‘Hot Tub’ Johnny Rocket
Alia Shawkat: Pash
Eve: Rosa Sparks
Zoe Bell: Bloody Holly
Ari Graynor: Eva Destruction
Eulala Scheel: Shania Cavendar
Daniel Stern: Earl Cavendar
Studio: Mandate Pictures
Run-Time: 111 minutes

Based on a novel (“Derby Girl“) by real-life roller derby athlete Shauna Cross, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is a warm, funny film that reflects its creators most charming traits.

The story focuses on Bliss Cavendar (Page), a girl from small-town Bodeen, Texas (Michigan stands in for the Lone Star State in the film), who’s been groomed, seemingly since birth, to reach the heights of beauty pageant success that eluded her mother, Brooke (Gay Harden).

A postal worker, Brooke is the domineering stage mother, par excellence, who’s badgered her daughter down a path she doesn’t want to follow. In this case, it’s winning the hallowed “Miss Blue Bonnet” competition.

In fairly short order, Bliss, and best friend Pash (Shawkat), meet up with members of The Hurl Scouts, an all-girls roller derby team who compete in nearby Austin. Bliss becomes entranced by the elaborately tattooed tough girls, and before long, she’s a member of the Hurl Scouts (who dress in torn Girl Scout uniforms) and competing in the TXRD (Texas Roller Derby) League.

Of course, the team are utterly hapless when Bliss arrives and utterly resistant to their coach, Razor’s (Andrew Wilson) efforts to teach them the elaborately constructed plays he keeps in a red-bound notebook.

From there, the film veers into “Bend it Like Beckham” territory, as Bliss lies to her parents about her whereabouts (she’s at an SAT class, and not practicing with the team, honest!); exhibits a talent and love for roller derby (the film takes its name from a signature roller derby move, the whip, where a player grabs the arm of another to catapult them past competitors, thus scoring points), and with Bliss in the ranks, they begin to win games.

The movie comes to a head with a championship match against the Holy Rollers, a Catholic schoolgirl clad gang of tough girls, led by Iron Maven (Lewis), who spends much of the film as the bane of Bliss’s existence. It’s hard to like Lewis in this role, though that seems to be the point. But more often than not, Lewis (who has a second job as an indie rocker) seems to be playing a caricatured version of herself, instead of an actual character.

There’s a “Bend It” moment in the finale, as Bliss, discovered by her family and banned from competition, has to duck out of the Miss Blue Bonnet pageant to make it to the match. At first her mother is crushed, but comes around after the intercessions of her husband (Stern), a harried suburban Dad who lives a life of quiet desperation in his wife’s imposing shadow (a scene with him escaping to his van to watch football games is particularly sad).

I won’t give away the ending here, but suffice to say, it will confound your expectations.

Page is lovely as Bliss and brings her signature quirkiness to the role, displaying an unusual strength when she dismisses her indie rocker boyfriend with a backhanded slap for failing to call her while on the road. Barrymore is lovably goofy as “Smashlee Simpson,” and there’s a nice turn for rapper Eve as “Rosa Sparks.”

But the unheralded star here may be Wiig.

As she does on “Saturday Night Live,” Wiig imbues her character with demented believability. A single mom, she acts as mentor and role-model the younger Bliss, even as an edge of craziness plays in her bright eyes.

“Whip It,” is hardly deathless art. And it seems to be cut from that “Garden State” cloth of wispy, sentimental dramedies with a banging soundtrack. But that’s not so much a condemnation as it is a summation. Rare is the film these days that features a bunch of strong women kicking butt in a sport that’s a leftover relic of the dawn of television. But in her gang of girls, Page’s Bliss finds her bliss — and that’s not a bad lesson these days for young women.

About jlmicek

I'm an award-winning journalist in Harrisburg, Pa. I also run and cook all the things.
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