Whip It (Fox Searchlight, PG-13)

film_whip-it_sm.gifIt’s hard to be sanctimonious about a sport in which the participants adopt monikers which recall drag queens.

 

 

 

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Whip It is a charming film about a girl who finds herself through—wait for it—roller derby. It’s Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut (she also appears as one of the skaters) and it’s a winner, pairing a girl-power (or make that grrl power), coming-of-age story with a satirical take on the many clichés of the sports movie genre. It’s so good natured that you really have to smile as you find yourself rooting for the heroine’s team to win the big match.

That heroine would be Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a Texas high school girl who dutifully participates in beauty pageants to please her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) but wants something else out of life…she’s just not sure what. After attending a roller derby exhibition and being challenged by one of the skaters to "put on some skates and be your own hero," she’s bitten by the bug enough to lie about her age, dust off her Barbie quads and try out for the team. Of course she makes it, which means deceiving her parents (she claims to be taking an SAT prep class while she’s really at practice and matches) and enduring the hard knocks of a rookie (those girls play rough, and she’s about half the size of most of the skaters). It comes to a head when Bliss (in her skater persona as Ruthless) is featured on the league’s promotional poster and the league championship is scheduled the same day as the Blue Bonnet Beauty Pageant.

The screenplay for Whip It has the feel of real life, which is perhaps not so surprising since it was written by Shaun Cross based on her experiences skating with the Texas Rollergirls. She evokes a real sense of the camaraderie on Bliss’s team (The Hurl Scouts—with uniforms based on the Girl Scouts) and the rivalries with other squads, particularly the Holy Rollers (whose uniforms are based on Catholic school uniforms). Thankfully, Barrymore manages to avoid invoking the quasi-religious tone which infects so many sports movies. But she has help; it’s hard to be sanctimonious about a sport in which the participants adopt monikers which recall drag queens: Malice in Wonderland, Eva Destruction, Dina Might, Rosa Sparks and Bloody Holly, to name just a few.

As in most sports movies, the matches are really a means to an end, in this case the maturation of Bliss from a compliant but unhappy daughter to a young woman who knows her own mind. She has to work through a lot of personal stuff outside the rink as well, including a romance with an indie boy (real-life singer-songwriter Landon Pigg) who may or may not be trustworthy, high school hassles and a breach with her best friend and co-waitress at the Oink Joint, a barbecue restaurant where the waitresses wear pig-shaped aprons and the manager is all dressed up in a bolo tie. Welcome to small-town Texas, folks—see why our Bliss is eager to leave?

The cast is outstanding. Daniel Stern plays Bliss’s somewhat bemused father, Carlo Alban is her boss at the Oink Joint, Jimmy Fallon plays the league announcer "Hot Tub Johnny Rocket," and Andrew Wilson is the Hurl Scouts’ often-exasperated coach. Derby girls include Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Eve and Juliette Lewis, and if we can believe the publicity, they did a lot of their own skating. There’s an excellent soundtrack featuring so many different groups and indie hits that I gave up trying to keep track. The rink action is fast and furious and the stories are human and touching, making Whip It a commendable example of that rarest of genres, a female coming-of-age film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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