It’s no shock that Drew Barrymore chose Whip It as her directorial debut. A film about women’s roller derby featuring tough, trash-talking tattooed women seems right up her alley. What is surprising is her ability to mine genuine humor and emotion out of such an unconventional premise.
Ellen Page (Juno) gives another terrific performance as Bliss Cavendar. As the film begins she is a front-runner in a beauty pageant, and obviously miserable. There is something missing from her life, but her mother’s obsession with these pageants is preventing her from figuring out what she should be doing with her life. Eventually, she finds her way to Austin, Texas, and becomes a roller-derby sensation going by the name of Babe Ruthless.
As her mother, Marcia Gay Harden portrays a character that genuinely wants what is best for her daughters. She just doesn’t understand the impact roller-derby has on her daughter’s life. As Bliss Cavendar, she is a ridiculed, nerdy waitress living an ordinary life. But when she becomes Babe Ruthless, her life opens up. She is forced to become more aggressive, physically and mentally.
Page plays Cavendar and Ruthless as if they were two different people. The constant repression of Ruthless (what seems to be her real persona) is a tremendous pressure on her in “the real world,” and it is this struggle that drives the film. As things progress, it becomes clearer to everybody that this is who she is meant to be. This sense of discovery is a huge part of why the film works so well. It’s a believable and entertaining transition.
The other reason the film works so well is the terrific supporting cast. Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) shines as her best friend, Posh. They have a believable repartee between them, and this friendship is a cornerstone of the film. Barrymore smartly spends a lot of time away from the roller derby just observing these two living their lives. Their friendship is a crucial aspect of the characters, and it’s a smart move to spend so much time with them, away from the main story.
As for the roller derby itself, it’s a violent and fascinating sport that I honestly didn’t even know existed. Barrymore sets up the rules pretty early in the film, and then does a great job actually filming the sport itself. I’ve seen a lot of sports movies and while this does tend to follow the formula, it’s refreshing to follow a sport that I’ve never seen before. There is an energy and excitement to the game sequences, and she never loses sight of the action. It becomes very easy to follow, and I eventually found myself actually getting invested in the game itself.
The other roller-derby competitors are a really fun group to watch. Kristin Wiig, Zoe Bell, Eve, and even Drew Barrymore all play various team members. They all play tough girls, but never end up as stereotypes or cliches. Each individual is a memorable character, fleshed out and believable. The interactions between the team demonstrate a sense of family that is never forced. Another standout is Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven, the common enemy of the team. She seems to be having a blast with this performance, and her over-the-top attacks make it easier to root for the team.
Unfortunately, the extras on this set are terrible. There are nine deleted scenes, and many of them are simple scene extensions. There is a three-minute feature on the screenwriter and her process of writing the story. And the last feature is an ad for the soundtrack. I was amazed at the miniscule amount of material on the set. I would have thought Barrymore would have had a lot of material chronicling her debut. She doesn’t even provide a commentary track.
But my disappointment was balanced out with my enthusiasm for the film itself. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it nearly as much as I did, and was amazed at just how fun it actually ended up being. While the story is a bit of a cliché, it’s smartly written and always entertaining. I wasn’t expecting much from Barrymore, but she really did a great job and I look forward to seeing whatever her next attempt may be.