Whip It heralds Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut and to her credit is a fun, fresh injection into the recent ho-hum selections into the box office. The film stars Ellen Page, who clearly shows that her performance in Juno was no fluke and just the start of her career. She stars as Bliss Cavendar, an “alternative” girl eager to escape the confines of Bodeen, Texas to the larger world while trying to placate her domineering mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) dreams for her to find her niche on the local beauty pageant circuit. Bliss wiles away her after-school hours with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat) at their job as waitresses at the “Oink Joint” dreaming of a different life. She unexpectedly finds that outlet when an impromptu trip with Pash exposes her to the world of competitive women’s roller derby.
Determined to shake things up, Bliss-with Barbie roller skates from her childhood in tow —auditions for the “Hurl Scouts” roller derby team— and much to her surprise makes the team, thanks to her skills and a little white lie about her age (she is 17, but the requirement is 21). Suddenly she is surrounded by a veritable arsenal of girl power with fellow teammates that include Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), whose skating power is equally matched to her powers of aggression, and team captain, Maggie Mayhem, a notable turn by Kristin Wiig, whose recent subtly powerful performances, including Jason Bateman’s wife in Extract, have been a revelation. Maggie serves as a support system and worthy mentor to Bliss and urges her to “be her own hero.”
With Bliss’ help on the track under her new moniker “Babe Ruthless,” the last place team the Hurl Scouts become serious contenders for the championship, pitting them against their rivals, the Holy Rollers, led by the rough and tumble Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis —looking every bit of her age). Roller derby also gives Bliss the new-found sense of confidence to stand up for herself against the mean girl at school, to fall in love with the mysterious rocker boy Oliver, and to assert her own choices, even as the come in clash with her own parents’ expectations and values.
With exciting action sequences on the track balanced by quietly poignant moments, Whip It is a fun romp at the movies whose messages of believing in yourself and the power of your own abilities is a message we as audiences have heard before, but with this original retelling we are happy to sit back and listen once again.
And it may even make me venture into my own attic to see if I can find my own abandoned Jaguar roller skates and channel a time when gliding down the sidewalks of my suburb everything seemed magical and possible…