We bought (and played) into the Whip It hype from the moment Drew Barrymore secured the rights to produce and direct Shauna Cross‘ young adult novel, Derby Girl. The female-directed, female-scripted, predominantly female-acted film opens in the theaters today, and after catching the sneak peek last weekend I can confidently tell you that with Whip It, Barrymore didn’t make any promises she couldn’t keep.
Whip It is a smash-and-bash, coming-of-age fairytale that is thoroughly predictable in every way, yet still manages to come off fresh. Maybe it’s the infusion of rollicking feminist sentiment, or the girl-heavy soundtrack that swings easily between Tilly and the Wall and Dolly Parton. Or maybe it just feels good to occasionally watch someone get elbowed in the face on purpose.
For those of you who need a refresher: Whip It follows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) as she lies about her age and goes against her parents’ wishes to try out for a local Nowhere, TX roller derby team. Despite her tiny frame alongside women 15 years her senior, Bliss makes the team and begins leading a double life as a regular high school student by day and a a Hurl Scout by night.
And oh, those Hurl Scouts! Drew Barrymore is Smashley Simpson, the klutzy ringleader. SNL‘s Kristen Wiig is Maggie Mayhem. Usual stunt double (heh!) Zoe Bell is Bloody Holly. And R&B star Eve is Rosa Sparks.
On the opposing side you’ve got Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven. In what could have turned into a catty on-screen clash, Lewis delivers beautifully as a conflicted foe to Page’s Bliss. When she finds out Bliss lied about her age to get into the league, she’s faced with the choice of having her nemesis kicked out, or indulging a kid who reminds her of herself when she was a teenager.
Ellen Page is even more affable as beauty pageant contestant-turned-wannabe Hurl Scout than she was a reluctant mother-to-be in Juno. She brings the badassery during the derby action and adds a nuanced vulnerability to the scenes with her parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern).
And speaking of Marcia Gay Harden, she doesn’t don a pair of skates, but she still almost manages to steal every scene she’s in. Harden’s character won’t surprise you — you’ve seen her in every sports film from Bend it Like Beckham to Rudy — but she will make you believe her struggle to do what’s best for her daughter.
The two places Whip It strays are with Bliss’ romance with Oliver (Landon Pigg) and the wink-to-the-male-audience way the girl/girl scenes play out. Too much screen time is sacrificed watching Bliss try to navigate her way through her potential relationship with the enigmatic musician. It’s not that it’s a bad subplot, but it’s a waste not to see further development in the women’s lives, especially when there is such great camaraderie among the super talented female cast of characters.
There may be nothing particularly new about Whip It‘s formula, but it’s got enough laughs and "awws" and grrrl-powered fun to easily make it worth your time. In fact, it may be the quickest two hours I’ve ever spent in a theater.
I almost always agree with Willy Wonka, and in this case he seems to be especially right: "If the good Lord had intended us to walk, he wouldn’t have invented roller skates."
Who’s planning to see Whip It?