It's been said that roller derby is a cross between a sorority and a gang. But in Whip It, the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, roller derby is both a family and an escape from family.
As a producer, Barrymore has created films that feature quirky characters, strong female leads, and cute love stories. The only difference is that Whip It is a cute romance between a quirky girl and the sport she loves (and the other women who love it, too).
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a reluctant pageant girl from a small town outside Austin. She works at a barbecue restaurant with her best and only friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat, "Maeby" from Arrested Development) and longs for the day she can leave Bodeen, Texas, behind her.
On a shopping trip to Austin, she discovers the roller derby, a world full of badass chicks and cute boys. Bliss unearths her Barbie roller skates and, despite being in high school, lies about her age and sneaks off to become a derby girl.
Based on a novel by derby girl Shauna Cross, Whip It does a good job straddling the expectations of the derby audience and what it needs to appeal to the rest of the audience.
I've been involved in derby in some capacity for more than three years, so I'm well versed in the source material. Whip It gets most of the details exactly right: former figure skaters turned derby girls, the skeezy guy fans, and girls comparing bruises at parties.
Derby fans might wince when Bliss ultimately joins derby over a cute boy or that the film's hits aren't exactly what you'd call regulation for flat-track derby. But for the uninitiated, it gets the camaraderie, the athleticism, and the importance of the sport to the women who play it completely right.
The only off-note is perhaps Barrymore's own character, Smashley Simpson, the film's running sight gag and most violent skater. There are real-life skaters who are quick to retaliate a real — or imagined — foul with an intentional trip or even a punch, but they generally aren't free-spirited, happy-go-lucky hippies.
The rest of the actors are well cast in this heart-warming comedy: Page can deadpan with the best of them, but it's refreshing to see her play a character with more vulnerability and warmth.
Daniel Stern is her somewhat oblivious but doting dad, and though the story rests on the female relationships, it's the chemistry between Stern and Page that makes the whole thing work.
Kristen Wiig is perfect as team captain, adoring mom, and mother figure Maggie Mayhem. And Juliette Lewis is all lanky, feral malevolence as Bliss' arch-enemy, Iron Maven.
Because when it comes down to it, you might join derby for the sport, but you stay for the people.