This will seem an awkward beginning for this review, but I imagine Steven Spielberg had a blast making his early movies. He was 36 when he directed ET: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, a pet project for him, and I imagine young Drew Barrymore (who played the role of Gertie at age 6) watching him work on this film he was so passionate about and seeing directing as one hell of a fun ride. This makes me glad that Barrymore chose a fun project for her directorial debut, WHIP IT, starring Ellen Page as a small town Texas girl who finds her niche in the world of Roller Derby. Start off with a lighthearted passion project and work your way up to a SCHINDLER’S LIST. WHIP IT is one such film, with an empowering message for young girls and the capacity to enhance interest in women’s roller derby just as DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY did for its respective sport…though I can’t remember what sport that was.
Page is Bliss Cavender, seen as an outcast in her little town of Bodeen, and not all too enthusiastic about the pastime her mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden) has planned for her and her younger sister; competing in beauty pageants. She has a best friend in Pash (Alia Shawkat, who you’ll remember from “Arrested Development”), as her only confidant, as she toils at the local barbecue joint, mocking the locals and dreaming of a way out. She finds it in a flyer for a Roller Derby league in Austin, makes up an excuse for her parents to sneak away, and falls in love with the sport on first viewing. The names of the women in the league are enough to hook anyone. Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) first invites Bliss to try out for the team, Juliette Lewis plays the evil Iron Maven, Zoe Bell (last scene on the hood of a car in DEATHPROOF) is Bloody Holly, and even the director herself takes a dig at pop culture with her character’s name, Smashley Simpson.
Ellen Page is great. I’ve thought so since JUNO, then even liked her in SMART PEOPLE, though she played basically the same character – though not pregnant. In this she breaks away a little, in that she is more awkward and shy toward the beginning, then derives confidence through the sport and works up that Juno-like attitude. There are elements of mother/daughter conflict, Daniel Stern plays the father afraid of his wife and jealous of his neighbor’s football-playing sons, the relationship between Pash and Bliss becomes strained as Bliss joins the team, and Bliss falls for a boy as well, but all of these storylines are pulled together nicely and resolves well in the films 111 minutes. There is a pretty cool, if not difficult, romantic scene in a pool; Kristen Wiig shows she can do more than just comedy; and the scenes of actual roller derby are done well, accentuated by the color commentary of Johnny Rocket, played by Jimmy Fallon (notably funnier here than he is in late night).
This is a sports movie geared toward women, so of course there’s the climactic big game against the evil adversary, but the camaraderie of the league is such that even the “bad” team has a good relationship with all the others, and the conflict between the evil Iron Maven and Bliss’ roller derby alter ego Babe Ruthless is accentuated with a food fight, not an actual fight. The film has fun with roller derby, and the other stories of a young girl’s coming of age and relationships are furthered through the happiness she derives from the sport. This should be the film shown to all young girls, though it may cause a desire to get a myriad of tattoos. Opt for this flick instead of anything in the BRING IT ON franchise if you have a daughter in search of athletic inspiration. And kudos to Ms. Barrymore for a job well done. Spielberg would be proud.
(As a purely aesthetic post script, Ari Graynor looks gorgeous as Eva Destruction, and what a name.)