I can’t recall how many times I’d watched roller derby on TV, years back, maybe just a few times. When I asked my niece who watched the movie with me, as a twenty-something, she hasn’t even seen it once. But Drew Barrymore, in her directorial debut, has effectively captured the human side of a sport not many know about. And with it, she has poignantly woven in some relevant issues her audience could relate to, no matter what demographics they’re in: coming-of-age, finding love, confronting parental expectations, searching for personhood and empowerment, parenting and letting go.
After watching Juno (2007), I knew I must see more of Ellen Page. Here in Whip It, Page has proven that she’s not just impressive as an actor, but also as an athlete. She plays Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year-old small town Texas girl, bored, docile, shuffled from one beauty pageant to another by her overbearing mother Brooke, a former beauty queen turned middle-age mail clerk (sensitively played by Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River, 2003; Pollack, 2000).
After she watches a roller derby game with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), and successfully tries out for the team Hurl Scouts in Austin, Texas, Bliss, now Babe Ruthless, sees her life take off with high octane energy. She has passionately fallen for the high contact sport and a new boyfriend, rock band member Oliver (Landon Pigg).
The head-smashing, rowdy derby culture is probably the farthest away from the frothy and genteel beauty pageants of Texas, thus forms the great chasm between mother and daughter. Of course Bliss tries to hide all her activities from her mother, until it can’t be covered anymore. For she has become the poster girl for the final championship.
There are cliché sequences that we’ve all seen before, the light version of physical prowess as in Million Dollar Baby (2004), the get-back-up perseverance of Rocky, and, reminiscence of Shall We Dance (2004) in the final championship. But, it’s all fun and even exhilarating. Thanks to a great cast, the humor comes through naturally. I must mention some great deadpan act from diner manager Birdman (Carlo Alban), who reminds me of Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite (2004). Another great support is Hurl Scouts coach Razor played by Andrew Wilson. His performance makes me feel like I’m watching a Wes Anderson movie. Later I find out he’s older brother to Owen, then it’s all clear to me… it runs in the family.
[picapp src=”6/4/3/c/Whip_It_Los_86ef.JPG?adImageId=5337308&imageId=6660163″ width=”180″ height=”250″ /] Barrymore has effectively created some powerful and touching scenes that make the comedy worthwhile. It’s scenes like these that propel a comedy into the realm of meaning. She has balanced the comical with hard reality, for it’s not simply about a girl choosing what she wants to do, purely from her own point of view. Often our choices are entangled in a web of relationships. Yes, we may have the autonomy to choose, but our choices also affect others. Some gratifying moments are sensitively performed, between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and a 36 year-old derby teammate who openly shares her heart with Bliss in the car, with her young son in the back seat.
Into its second week of screening, Whip It has not fared as well as expected at the box office. But for screenwriter Shauna Cross, who has turned her own novel Derby Girl into screenplay, I trust this is just another blow she’s got all too used to, as a roller derby girl herself from Austin Texas, before moving to L.A. She knows how to get back up and keep on skating, even in the aggressive arena that’s L.A.
(Top Photo Source: USA Today, Bottom: PicApp.com)