Drew Barrymore’s 'totally awesome' directorial debut isn’t about S&M, doesn’t take place in the ’80s, and has nothing to do with the New Wave group Devo. Based on the novel by Shauna Cross, Whip It is a girl-empowering tale of roller derby mayhem in Austin, Texas.
Bliss Cavender (love that name), played by Ellen Page, is a bored high school outcast desperate to get out of sad little Bodeen, Texas, and away from the pageant expectations of her sweet but determined mother (Marcia Gay Harden). On a shopping trip to Austin, Bliss sees a group of roller derby queens. She’s intrigued enough to sneak out with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, in a breakout performance) to attend a match, and there she finds her calling.
Trying out for and getting into the notoriously non-winning team, the Hurl Scouts, Bliss joins a family of funny, supportive women with stage names like Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig, in her best non-SNL role to date) and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). The ungracious winning team, the Holy Rollers, is headed up by an impossibly tough “mean girl” named Iron Maven, played with balls-out bravado by Juliette Lewis. Will Bliss, now "Babe Ruthless", bring her team to victory?
Nothing about Bliss’ journey into Roller Derby semi-stardom is original on paper, but it’s in the details, dialogue and delivery that Barrymore really makes the movie take off.
Harden’s mom is not a clichéd harpy, nor a pent-up proper prude. Her loving, romantic scenes with Daniel Stern as Bliss’ blue collar dad are real and refreshing. These are parents who really want the best for their kids, be it pageants for the little miss younger sister or something more full-body-contact for their elder girl.
Page is fierce and honest off and on the roller derby rink, and Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen’s brother) is a comic master as the Hurl Scout’s beleaguered coach. Lewis plays a terrific villainess, but in a film packed with so much joyful abandon, even the bad girl gets a moving moment to explain that she’s 36 and she didn't find something that she’s good at until she was 30.
The roller derby scenes are fun and frantic, but Barrymore lavishes just as much care into the more intimate scenes, like the one where Wiig gives Bliss a little maternal wake-up call.
Whip It would be a wonderful film for any seasoned director, but as Barrymore’s first trip around the rink, so to speak, Whip It is a lot more than “real good.”
UPDATE: Whip It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.