There is one place I never envisioned myself on a Saturday night—sitting behind the Pioneer Valley Roller Derby team at a preview screening of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It. That is because one, I didn’t even know that there was a Pioneer Valley Derby League and two, everything Drew Barrymore touches typically makes me cringe. But Whip It is an entertaining and refreshing coming-of-age comedy that has made this notorious film snob less cynical.
Whip It stars Ellen Page (Juno) as Bliss Cavendar, a Texas teen who is constantly pressured by her controlling mother, Brooke (played by Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in beauty pageants. Bliss, however, wants nothing to do with pageant life. By chance, she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) attend a roller derby match and Bliss finds herself determined to join the Hurl Scouts, an Austin roller derby team. Suddenly Bliss finds herself embedded in the roller derby world, falling for the guitarist in a local band and lying to her parents about her newfound passion.
The roller derby world comes alive through the movie’s exceptional supporting actors. SNL’s Kristin Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem, Bliss’s mentor while Eve and Barrymore appear as Rosa Sparks and Smashley Simpson, Bliss’s teammates. Juliette Lewis plays Iron Maven, the trashtalking captain of a rival team. Andrew Wilson and Jimmy Fallon round out the supporting cast as the Hurl Scouts coach and the league’s bizarre emcee respectively. These characters provide the film with hilarious literal and figurative comedic punches.
At its heart Whip It is a teenage coming-of-age story. Yet it feels refreshingly real. That is in large part due to the focus paid to the heartfelt mother-daughter relationship. What on paper reads like a cliche—a daughter rebels from her strict upbringing only to find herself and to understand her mother along the way—feels much more than that. In one final scene, Brooke reads a sentimental note from Bliss. Rather than cut the scene, the camera lingers on Brooke’s expression longer than you would expect as both she and the audience realize how these two characters have grown. The inclusion of this particular scene shows how Whip It benefits from having a female vision behind the film.
Female directors rarely direct feature-length commercial Hollywood films. As someone who has been in the film industry since the age of five, Drew Barrymore is a logical person to transition from acting to directing. Her presence in the male-dominated directing field will certainly enliven Hollywood’s representations of women. Whip It is a reflection of this. The film’s sharp and sassy humor, focus on individuality and independence, and overall empowering message make Whip It a must-see movie of the fall.
Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 1, 2009