Whip It!

20 10 2009

Director: Drew Barrymore

Starring: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Juliet Lewis & Landon Pigg

Released: Oct. 2, 2009

The story of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is familiar. “Alternative” girl pushed to do something she doesn’t enjoy by her parents finds something she loves but has to hide. Eventually that blows up and the rest of the movie is spent picking up the pieces.

The difference with “Whip It!,” however, is some witty dialogue, killer performances by the cast (these characters could be who Lewis, Barrymore and Wiig really are when they aren’t acting) and a kick ass sport that is rarely featured in mainstream America – Roller Derby.

Even if you’ve never seen a derby, or understand the main point of the game, the F. you attitude of the derby girls and empowering feeling these women seem to get from hip checking and beating the crap out of each other is awesome and infectious.

Bliss (Ellen Page) doesn’t really know where her life is going at the beginning of the movie.  There are hints that she used to be “normal” with a guarded back story when a popular classmate who seems to have been a former friend asks if she’s “alternative” now. Bliss’ simple answer? “Alternative to what?”

That non-confrontational, simply inquisitive attitude takes Bliss through life. Her mother wants her to be in pageants, she competes in pageants. She dyes her hair blue but doesn’t fight her mom when they go to a professional to re-dye it brown, and so on.

It isn’t until a shopping trip to Austin that Bliss starts to question if there is something else out there for her.

When her mom refuses to buy boots from a head shop, Bliss puts up a whiny front, but doesn’t seem as though she’s going to put her foot down and pay the bill herself. That is, until three women on roller skates come in to drop off flyers for the derby. The look on Bliss’ face is no longer one of inquiry and non-confrontation, instead it’s inquiry and admiration. The roller skating women don’t seem to care what others think of them, and as Bliss pays for her boots, she grabs a flyer to take to her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat).

The first introduction to the sport is through a glimpse of an exhibition game between the Hurl Scouts and the Holy Rollers (themed after the girl scouts and Catholic school girls, respectively). From the minute Iron Maven (Juliet Lewis) and her Rollers sweep Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem’s (Kristen Wiig) Scouts, Bliss is hooked – Mayhem has even invited her to tryouts the next week. The only problem? Bliss is 17 and you have to be 21 to compete.

Bliss disregards the rule and signs up as a 22-year-old, quickly standing out in the crowd as a speed demon on skates. She’s assigned to the floundering Hurl Scouts, a team without a lot of direction led by their coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson, yet another sibling from Luke and Owen’s clan who seems to be in his breakout role after appearing as unimportant characters in his brother’s movies). After a humiliating example of why Razor’s plays will help the Scouts win matches, the ladies decide the should pay attention to him and slowly rise up the ranks of the six team league (all with amazing names, but none as good as the Hurl Scouts) to play Maven and Co. once again in the championship.

Along the way, Bliss finds herself as she identifies with the devil may care attitudes of the women. She stands up for herself against bullying classmates and at work, and has a purpose in life that is more than just doing what her mother wants in pageants. She even finds a boyfriend – the older, guitar-playing Oliver (Landon Pigg, a musician in his first acting role), who’s band is booking gigs on a tour that will take him away from Bliss for a month.

The boyfriend and the best friend butt heads when Bliss leaves a derby with Oliver while Pash gets arrested for underage drinking which leads to Bliss’ two worlds colliding. Her parents find out about her derby days and forbid her from competing, leading to bliss running to Maggie Mayhem for help.

She’s surprised to find, though, that Mayhem has a child of her own and can identify with what how Bliss’ mother is acting. This, along with feeling abandoned by Oliver, who has appeared to have cheated on tour, leads Bliss home, where she falls in line with her mother’s wishes and agrees to participate in an important pageant – which predictably falls on the same night as the championship derby.

The rest of the movie is one cliche after another and the situation works itself out so Bliss can compete in the derby and her parents overcome their desire to shelter her from situations and people who are different from them. They see that Bliss has finally found something she loves, and support her.

Even though the movie is predictable, it’s still visually stunning. The scenes at the derby are amazing, especially when you realize the actress’ did their own stunts. One can imagine some of the bruises the ladies sport in the film were more real than not at times.

The movie also banks on some big name comedic actors, though many of them don’t get the attention the deserve – most notably, Jimmy Fallon in a horribly underutilized role as the derby announcer.

What makes the movie great, though, is the fact that it’s a coming of age story set around a sport we haven’t seen too much of. Bliss isn’t growing into herself by kicking goals or shooting hoops, she’s hip-checking and out-maneuvering women with names like Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Jaba the Slut.

It’s also the perfect next step for Ellen Page, who came off the huge role of Juno with a few lesser-known roles. This puts Page right back in the spotlight as the up and coming actress she truly is. And while comparisons to Juno are inevitable, Page holds her own by melding into Bliss and making you forget that we’ve seen this girl as a pregnant teenager before. The veteran actresses also do a great job of making sure Page isn’t outshined.

Overall, this movie was well worth the exorbitant amount of money any movie theater will make you pay to see it.

Rating: Very good.