In an age where young girls are given to look a certain way and act in a certain way. One of the most daring films to come out in 2009 came from one of American cinema’s most revered actresses in Drew Barrymore. Though known for her days as a child star with films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Firestarter and later solidifying herself as one of the top-draw actresses of the late 90s and early 21st Century. Barrymore took a step further into her role outside of acting as made her own directorial debut with a film based on the world of roller-derby called Whip It.
Based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, Whip It tells the story of a 17-year old girl from the fictional Bodeen, Texas as she wants to escape a world of beauty pageants that her mother wants to compete in. When she and a friend go to Austin and check out the world of roller-derby, she takes in finding the escape she needed. Directed by Drew Barrymore with Cross writing the screenplay, the film is a tale of a teenage girl finding her own voice while trying to deal with her strict, caring mother. Starring Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Stern, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Eve, Jimmy Fallon, Carlos Alban, Juliette Lewis, Ari Graynor, Andrew Wilson, Landon Piig, Drew Barrymore, and Marcia Gay Harden. Whip It is an extraordinary yet touching film from Drew Barrymore.
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a 17-year old high school student from Bodeen, Texas who is unsure what to do with her life. With her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) trying to get her to win a local beauty pageant that she won many years ago. Bliss’ attempts at rebellion by dyeing her hair blue has only baffled her mother while her dad Earl (Daniel Stern) wonders what is up with Bliss. When Bliss isn’t at school, she works at a local restaurant with best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) and their boss Birdman (Carlos Alban). Then one day on a trip to Austin with her mother and younger sister Shania (Eulala Scheel), Bliss finds a flyer for a roller-derby exhibition as she and Pash decide to go without telling their parents.
Bliss’ discovery of the world of roller-derby becomes life-changing as she saw a match between the two-time reigning champions the Holy Rollers led by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) against the rag-tag Hurl Scouts. Though the Hurl Scouts lost, Bliss was still impressed by their no-holds-barred attitude as the team consisted of Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), and Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore). After Maggie suggests that Bliss should try out, Bliss does though she had to wear her old Barbie doll skates where she manages to impress the Hurl Scouts coach Razor (Andrew Wilson) as she along with the Manson sisters (Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica) to join the team. While Bliss decides to hide her new role as a roller derby girl from her parents, only Pash and Birdman know with Pash helping along.
With Bliss playing her first game as Babe Ruthless, she manages to impress the fans along with her teammates even though they lost. Bliss and Pash goes to a party that included many in the scene. Among them was the game’s announcer “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket (Jimmy Fallon) and a local musician named Oliver (Landon Piig) who Bliss falls for. While the party was fun, Bliss still had to deal with her mother’s desire for Bliss to succeed at an upcoming beauty pageant. Bliss found escape when Oliver visited as a relationship starts to blossom while realizing that the Hurl Scouts really wanted to win some games. Thanks to Bliss’ speed and Razor’s new plays, the Hurl Scouts start to become winners as things are going great. Even as Bliss becomes the league’s new poster girl. Then one night after a game, the league gets in trouble with the fire marshal as Bliss manages to leave with Oliver though Pash got arrested for carrying alcohol.
Though Bliss would have a romantic night with Oliver, she comes home where her parents found out what she’s been up to. Bliss leaves home as she tries to call Oliver while Iron Maven finds out that Bliss lied about her age to the league as she threatens to reveal the truth. With things starting to fall apart and the championship game is underway, Bliss tries to mend fences with her mother and Pash. Even as Earl discovers more about Bliss’ role in the roller-derby circuit as he goes to the Hurl Scouts for help about the upcoming game.
While the film is a mixture of a sports comedy as well as a light mother-daughter drama, it’s really about a young girl trying to find her place in the world while seeking the approval of her mother. Still, screenwriter Shauna Cross goes deep into the world of roller-derby and why it was able to attract someone as out of place as Bliss is. For Bliss, it’s not that she despises the world of beauty pageant entirely. She’s just trying to find some escape not just from well-meaning but demanding mother but also from the dull world that is Bodeen, Texas.
Another reason for Bliss to enter this rough-and-tumble world of roller derby is to find an outlet where she can be tough and deal with whatever people she has to deal with at home like a fellow pageant contestant/cheerleader or Iron Maven, the roller-derby queen. Though Maven isn’t a traditional antagonist, she is someone who feels a bit threatened by Bliss’ arrival while would be the one who discovers her true age. Bliss also discovers first love in a young rock musician named Oliver who would be the one to help get out of her shell but also put her in reckless situations that would nearly cost her friendship with Pash.
Cross’ screenplay is wonderful not just for its structure but also in character development. It’s not just Bliss that starts off as a nerdy outsider who turns into a badass, confident young woman. It’s also her mother Brooke who is this woman that has aspirations for her daughter to have a much better life than she had. Though she works as a mail carrier and likes to put Bliss into the world of beauty pageants, she always had the best intentions though not in the right way. Even though her husband Earl gets a bit smothered by Brooke, he is still able to be by her side when Bliss’ secret is revealed. Yet when she finds Bliss wallowing over Oliver, Brooke becomes the kind of woman that everyone expects in a mother and more as she also loosens up a bit.
Cross’ screenplay succeeds in not just fleshing out characters and create some funny and inspiring moments. It also gives Drew Barrymore a chance to create a film that brings Cross’ story to life. Barrymore’s direction is mostly straightforward with her presentation towards comedy and light-drama. Yet, she makes sure that the story the audience is telling is about not just Bliss but also the relationship with her mother and her friends. Barrymore always keeps the camera moving though still when it comes to conversation scenes with the Hurl Scouts. The scenes where the roller-derby is taking place definitely is one of the film’s highlights as she always has the camera following the action. Whether it’s from the viewpoint an audience member watching from the nose-bleed seats or inside the roller-derby stage.
Barrymore also allows the audience to relax and enjoy a few sequences and the scenery of where the film takes place. Notably Austin for some scenes as it was mostly shot in suburbs of Detroit. Still, Barrymore was able to give the idea that it could’ve been shot anywhere near Austin since it’s a lively place. While the film does play up to a few formulas expected in a coming-of-age film, Barrymore is able to play around with it while maintaining the heart of the story of a young girl finding her own identity. Overall, this is definitely a solid yet entertaining directorial debut for Drew Barrymore.
Helping Barrymore with her vision is famed Wes Anderson cinematographer Robert Yeomen. Yeomen’s photography is filled with an amazing array of colorful shots for many of the film’s exterior settings along with wonderful steadicam shots for the roller derby scenes. While it may not have the blaring looks that he did for Wes Anderson, Yeomen does create some inspiring work. Notably the pool scene where blue lights and dark shading around the pool is truly inspiring as Yeomen really captures something magical with that scene.
Editor Dylan Tichenor does a very good job with the film’s editing by maintaining a leisured pace for the film. Even as he create some great sequences which includes Bliss’ training montage set to the .38 Special song Caught Up In You. It’s definitely masterful in what is expected for a genre-bending coming-of-age comedy while it also plays up to the intensity of the roller-derby scenes.
Production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and set decorator Meg Everist do an amazing job with the look of the Roller Derby rink as well as the restaurant that Bliss works in which includes a large pig on top of the building. Costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas does excellent work with the costumes including the pageant dresses and the costumes that the roller derby girls wear. Sound editor Christopher Scarabosio does some fantastic work with the sound that includes the intense atmosphere of the roller derby with the crowd roaring along with the sounds of roller skates driving through the rink. It’s definitely something that is expected in a rousing yet fun film with that kind of sound.
The film’s score by the Section Quartet is mostly a low-key score with serene string quartet pieces to play up a bit of the film‘s light-drama. Helping with the film’s soundtrack is music supervisor Randall Poster as he creates a truly diverse soundtrack filled with all kinds of music. From old-school acts like the Ramones, Dolly Parton, .38 Special, and the Breeders to indie acts like MGMT, Jens Lekman, the Raveonettes, the Go Team!, Peaches, Har Mar Superstar, and many others. It’s definitely a killer soundtrack that has something for everyone.
The casting by Justine Baddeley and Kim Davis-Wagner is definitely a real highlight as there are numerous standouts in various small roles. Whether its Sarah Habel as the bitchy high school queen Corbi, Shannon Eagen as the friendly pageant contestant Amber, Doug Minckiewicz as Corbi’s boyfriend Colby, and indie music performer Har Mar Superstar as a rival coach. They all bring something memorable to their roles. Other notable small roles include Carlos Alban as Bliss and Pash’s restaurant manager Birdman, Eulala Scheel as Bliss’ younger sister Shania, Kristin Adolfi and Rachel Piplica as the Manson Sisters, Ari Graynor as roller derby queen Eva Destruction, and Jimmy Fallon as the very funny roller derby MC “Hot Tub” Johnny Rocket.
Andrew Wilson is very good as the Hurl Scouts coach Razor with his silly jean-shorts look and his ability to create excellent plays. Landon Piig is pretty good as Oliver, Bliss’ rocker love interest who helps Bliss explore more of herself though would play a part into her own individuality. Zoe Bell is wonderful as the tough Bloody Holly while Eve rocks as the no-nonsense Rosa Sparks. Drew Barrymore is hilarious as Smashley Simpson who acts like a ditz and often does silly things on and off the rink. Kristen Wiig is great as Maggie Mayhem, the straight person of the Hurl Scouts who gives Bliss some advice about what mothers go through in raising kids. Juliette Lewis is also great as Bliss’ roller-derby rival Iron Maven as a tough woman who feels threatened by Bliss’ arrival while wanting to be a funny sort of bully.
Daniel Stern is phenomenal as Earl, Bliss’ dad who has to deal with his neighbor and his football-playing sons while wanting to escape his wife’s strict world. Stern hasn’t had a big major role in years as it’s definitely a reminder of what a great actor he is as he also delivers some of the film’s funniest one-liners. Alia Shawkat is superb as Pash, Bliss’ best friend who helps her become a roller-derby player only to feel slighted when Bliss goes further into the world of roller-derby and Oliver. It’s definitely a fantastic supporting performance as Shawkat can be funny and also serious in a role that could’ve been clichéd.
Marcia Gay Harden is amazing as Brooke, Bliss’ strict though well-meaning mother. Harden exudes all of the motherly traits that her character needed as she is someone who wants the best things for Bliss that she never had as a child. Harden even gets a chance to be funny while allowing her character to break away from her strict shell as it’s definitely one of her best performances to date. Finally, there’s Ellen Page in what is certainly a remarkable performance. While she doesn’t spew quirky lines or act in a stylized manner that she did in her breakthrough role in 2007’s Juno. It’s definitely a much more interesting performance as she plays a more realistic girl trying to find her place in the world. Page brings some humor to the role along with some drama as she makes Bliss Cavendar into a real, lively character. Even as it allows Page to play sexy in a non-conventional manner. It’s definitely one of Page’s finest performances yet.
Whip It is an extraordinary, fun debut film from Drew Barrymore that features a radiant performance from Ellen Page. Armed with a great ensemble cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Juliette Lewis, and Alia Shawkat. It’s the kind of film that brings laughs, real situations, and lots of roller-derby action that audiences can cheer for. It’s also the kind of film that brings a lot of girl-power that is lacking in today’s world of overly-beautiful women that not many could relate to. In the end, Whip It is a phenomenal debut film from Drew Barrymore and company.
© thevoid99 2011