If I had to do it over again, no question, feet firmly planted on four wheels, I’d be a Roller Derby Queen. The speed. The danger. The adrenaline of the race. The cheers of the crowd. Those cute short-shorts. Those firm thighs. Ah, the sheer goddess power of it all!
Whip It, actress Drew Barrymore’s solid directorial debut, captures much of the enthusiasm for roller derby skating wrapped in a sweet, old-fashioned, almost paint-by-number drama of family and girlfriends, with an appealing gangly boy friend thrown in for good measure. It’s nothing new but it’s fun and enjoyable, sometimes hilarious, even a tear or two, and I loved every single minute of it.
Bliss Cavender, played by Juno’s “It” girl, the enchanting pipsqueak Ellen Page, dreams of escaping stultifying small-town Bodeen, Texas and the boring beauty pageants her controlling mother (Marcia Gay Harden, Gaudi Afternoon) makes her endure. Dad (Daniel Stern, A Previous Engagement), loving but remote, acquiesces to his wife, knowing that the one-time beauty queen, now postal worker, wants for their daughter everthing her own mother didn’t give to her. But no one asks Bliss what she wants. Rudderless, she doesn’t know herself. Even with her dearest friend Pasha (Alia Shawkat, Amreeka) with whom she works at the local diner, Bliss can’t articulate how she’s going to make something of herself.
Then one day a foursome of noisy wild women roll themselves into a store where Bliss it trying to buy a pair of shoes. They tease her to join them. “The last time I wore skates,” she replies, “they had Barbies on them.” But at home, she pulls out her old street skates as if they are sirens calling to her from an ancient past and she starts remembering what it was like to speed like a demon with the wind rushing through her hair and her legs pumping like a marathon runner. It feels good. And as it turns out, when she sneaks to the team try-outs, she’s got talent.
One thing leads to another and the runt (only 17 when the rules call for being at least 21) gets on the team and becomes Babe Ruthless. She quickly learns that roller derby champions don’t just have to skate like lightning bolts, they have to think like warriors. These girls don’t take lessons on how to mince words and wear gossamer dresses. They learn how to hit and slam and punch and wrestle on the floor. They don’t come home with pageant trophies. They stumble in with bloody noses and bruises the size of blueberry pies. In other words, these gals are having fun!
Alas, to be on the team, Bliss has had to tell a pack of lies. And Whip It is nothing if not conventionally moral. Inevitably comeuppance happens. Bliss has to face the truth that, like George Washington and all American heroes since, dishonesty hurts the people she loves, including her teammates Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (comic Kristen Wiig) and even her fierce competitor on the fearsome Holly Rollers, Iron Maven herself (the marvelous Juliette Lewis, Gaudi Afternoon.)
Like all teenagers are supposed to do eventually, Bliss realizes who and what is worth her focus. And Mom, like the moms of all teenagers, realizes her children are going to do what they want, no matter how much she thinks she knows better. Corny? Yes. But with all the wonderful actors in this movie it’s engaging and lovely. And it’s absolutely wonderful, I mean wonderful, to see so much femme talent in one movie.
In the meantime Bliss meets a cute guy with a quirky smile named Oliver (musician Landon Pigg). Little by little, with gentleness and shyness, they fall in love, an adventure that includes one of the most beautiful underwater de-robing scenes ever. Erotic and totally sweet.
I enjoyed Whip It thoroughly. The only thing I would like to have seen more of was the grueling training that the derby gals have to go through. The sport is physically and mentally demanding and details of the hard journey from rookie to champion would have given the story weight. Otherwise, Whip It is a delight.