Barrymore ‘whips’ actors into shape in directorial debut
Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It!” does not disappoint. The film follows a young girl who is forced to compete in beauty pageants by her mother but secretly (and illegally), skates in roller derby at night.
What makes “Whip It!” come alive is the camera angles shot during the roller derby scenes. Since roller derby is a fast-paced sport, Barrymore did a superb job of making sure that the audience feels as though they are in each bout with the skaters. The movie is about half storyline, half derby-practice footage, which, while seemingly a disadvantage for those inclined to favor storyline, serves its purpose, striking a good balance between storyline and action. However, there are times in “Whip It!” when skaters smack the floor face first and come up with all their makeup intact, pulling the believability of the film into question. Still, perhaps the award for best believable nosebleed goes to Drew Barrymore herself, for swallowing some of that fake blood during a roller derby scene.
Besides these bouts, the cast is what brings “Whip It!” – adapted for the screen from Shauna Cross’ novel, “Derby Girl” – to life. In the main character role, “Juno” star Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a small-town Texas girl who lives in mediocrity until she sees a flyer for the Austin Roller Derby and decides to try out for the team. Her character is largely relatable to the audience: she has problems trying to please her beauty pagent-obsessed mother, while still trying to do something that inspires her. She also dates a dude (Landon Pigg) in a band.
Other supporting roles include Drew Barrymore as Smashley Simpson, one of Bliss’ fellow roller derby teammates. Rapper Eve co-stars as Rosa Sparks, while real-life stuntwoman (and “Death Proof” star) Zoë Bell appears as Bloody Holly. “Whip It!” is also lent the fantastic talents of two Saturday Night Live cast members – alum Jimmy Fallon serves up plenty of snark as ‘Hot Tub’ Johnny Rocket, while cast member Kristin Wiig turns sympathetic as Bliss’ pseudo-mentor, Maggie Mayhem. In the tradition of roller derby, these characters were only referred to as their “derby names” and most were given little to no back story.
A surprisingly coherent Juliette Lewis pops up in “Whip It!” as Iron Maven, a rival roller derby team leader who quickly positions herself as the antagonist to Bliss. After trying out for the derby team in Austin after seeing them compete the week before, Bliss – Barbie-themed skates in tote – makes the team, and earns the fearsome mantle, “Babe Ruthless.”
Miraculously, she is has a natural talent for skating. Bliss soon trades in her Barbie-themed skates for a pair of Riedell’s with her tips she earns from working at a local barbeque joint. The rest of “Whip It!” chronicles Bliss’ life trying to balance working, lying to her parents about her whereabouts (she claims she’s doing SAT prep) and improving at roller derby. “Whip It!” does seem to lag at some junctures, and the film’s slow pacing is counteracted by the excitement that characterizes the film’s derby scenes.
Bliss’ sassy best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of “Arrested Development”), provides the comedic foil for Page, who continues to play the same angst-ridden part we saw in “Juno,” and again in 2008’s “Smart People.” Shawkat, though, is the embodiment of any best friend: she drives Bliss to the derby for the first time, she gives Bliss her tips when Bliss doesn’t get any and she still secretly supports Bliss when she’s mad at her. She and Bliss tango around the Oink Joint (where they both work), and later, Bliss holds Pash’s hair back when she’s drunk. They have a reciprocal, model friendship, and after getting into a fight, are not too proud to say when they’re sorry.Surprisingly, Jimmy Fallon’s role as a derby announcer is meticulously placed: Who knew Jimmy Fallon was actually funny? Maybe not since his days on SNL, but he proved us wrong. His commentary on the world of the skaters plays off of their derby names, with crude and sometimes hilarious results. Though Drew Barrymore is in the movie herself, she has a relatively small role that serves to help keep the spotlight situated on Ellen Page.
“Whip It!” is one of those quirky movies. Primarily classified as comedy, it also features some serious moments and footage of roller derby. There seems to be no target demographic, but older generations might not get the puns with the derby names, or some of the pop culture references. However, “Whip It!” is one of those “10 out of 10” movies and has a little something for everybody.
Haley Navarro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org