By Don Simpson | October 2, 2009
Director: Drew Barrymore
Writer(s): Barry Mendel, Drew Barrymore
Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern
Bliss (Ellen Page) is a misfit – at least as far as rural Texas standards are concerned – high schooler. Bliss’ mother (Marcia Gay Harden) wants Bliss to be a beauty pageant queen, just like she was; but when Bliss shows up at a beauty pageant with blue hair, we all know that Bliss doesn’t share her mother’s aspirations. One day, Bliss’ mother takes Bliss to Austin to do some shopping. She reluctantly agrees to buy Bliss a pair of combat boots, until she notices that the boutique also sells bongs. Bliss buys the combat boots with her own cash, and picks up a flyer on the way out…the flyer is for a female roller derby exposition match in Austin.
Bliss drags her friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to the roller girls’ match. Bliss notices a cute, lanky musician named Oliver (Landon Pigg) in the audience and next thing we know Bliss is on the next bingo shuttle (don’t ask) to Austin (with her Barbie Doll roller skates in tow) to try-out for the roller derby league.
Unlike the other derby girls, Bliss is cute and slight and not very aggressive; she is very young (she lies and says that she’s 22) and very quick (despite having not skated in upteen years, not to mention the Barbie Doll roller skates she’s using) and Razor (Andrew Wilson) signs her to his team. In order to keep up with her practice schedule, matches and after-parties, Bliss lies to her parents and says that she’s taking SAT prep classes. Eventually, Bliss’ life falls apart as her charade quickly unravels; but don’t worry, you’re in Hollywood – it will all work itself out in the end.
Whip It! is Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut and the script was written by Los Angeles Derby Doll Shauna Cross (the script was adapted from Cross’ book Derby Girl). The production was intended to be shot in Austin, TX (the birthplace of the rekindled derby girl movement); but Texas lost the production to Michigan due to uncompetitive filmmaking incentives – a lot of exterior location shots were still done in Austin, though.
The moral of Whip It! – as the movie poster states – is to be your own hero. Bliss is a very independent girl, who takes life by the proverbial horns and she grows the balls necessary to do what she wants to do. Unfortunately she lies to friends and family and burns a few bridges along the way, but she eventually apologizes for those faults and apparently lives happily ever after. Essentially, Whip It! is a coming of age film for girls that don’t want to be beauty queens, and who like to dye their hair blue and wear combat boots once in a while…even if they live in ultra-conservative rural Texas.
This all sounds pretty good so far, huh? Unfortunately, as far as a movie is concerned, Whip It! is an inconsistent and muddled mess. Barrymore’s interpretation of the roller girl movement is overly quaint and twee – and anything that does not appear to be quaint and twee (such as the warehouse where the roller derby matches take place) comes off overly exaggerated and fake.
Don’t even get me started on the love story! What does the “Marco Polo” scene or the “naked make-out session in the pool” scene have to do with roller derby? Both scenes feel like they are blatant attempts to add cute and quirky elements to the plot (just like the bingo bus and the squealer).
Even the casting is dreadfully inconsistent. Ellen Page seems to pull off exactly what Barrymore wanted Bliss to be; Alia Shawkat is perfectly acceptable as Pash; and Barrymore herself is decent as Smashley Simpson. The two best performances come from Juliette Lewis’ Iron Maven (the only truly believable derby girl) and Andrew Wilson as Bliss’ coach, Razor. Then there are Eve, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon and Marcia Gay Harden who are either horribly miscast or really poorly directed.
The most amazing letdown for me was Robert Yeoman’s cinematography. It’s extremely difficult for me to believe that the same person that artfully lensed so many visually stimulating films (to name a few: Drugstore Cowboy, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, CQ, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited) could have shot something so visually bland and mediocre. I really expected great action sequences and rich mise-en-scène. Could Barrymore have held him back from taking risks with the camera? Or was Yeoman just on board for the easy pay check?
Well, on the bright side…some of the dialogue was well-written…
One final point…I really loved the soundtrack but it also seemed a wee too twee for derby girls…I mean do derby girls really listen to Jens Lekman? And that scene in the car with Bliss rocking out on the air guitar to the Ramones…cheesy (she could have at least been jamming along to the music!).
If you are really interested in Austin’s all-girl roller derby, check out Bob Ray’s excellent documentary Hell on Wheels.