WHIP IT: Ten Years Later, Drew Barrymore’s Directorial Debut Still Serves Up Girl Power Punk Rock Fun

In recent years, there has been a growing cultural awareness of the extent to which the film industry is by and large dominated by men both in front of and behind the camera. To put a spotlight on women working in film, I am participating in the 52 Films By Women challenge. The requirements: watch at least one (1) new-to-you film per week that has been directed by a woman. As I make my way through the year, I will be reviewing each film I see as part of the challenge here.

52 Films By Women Entry #: 2

Whip It poster.jpg

In 2007, the release of Juno took the popular culture by storm. Here was a quirky little indie movie full of likable actors and a big heart that expressed itself through peculiar dialogue full of strange non-sequiturs and teenage lingo that the film seemed to be making up on the fly. Having a young Ellen Page deliver that lingo made it not only bearable, but feel like an authentic extension of the character’s spirit of benign rebellion and nonconformity, not so much in that Juno rejected or stood against something but simply that she marched to the beat of her own drum without regard for how others would receive her. Fittingly, it was a career-launcher for Page.

It’s not difficult to see where Drew Barrymore, who bore her own reputation as Hollywood’s rebellious wild child, would’ve identified with something in Page’s performance, enough to make her the star of her directorial debut, 2009’s Whip It. Page brings much of that charm to the misfit Bliss Cavendar, though full-on defiance is something the character has to work up to over the course of the film. Working the small-town Texas pageant circuit at the behest of her former beauty queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss has little direction and not many opportunities to figure out what she wants from life, her unruliness limited to a packet of blue hair dye applied moments before an early pageant appearance.

Soon, however, Bliss is introduced to the violent, raucous world of roller derby, in which she watches women skate around an arena in risque uniforms while pummeling the crap out of each other. It’s wild, strange, brutal, and feels a little bit taboo. Naturally, she falls in love with it, hitching rides to nearby Austin to try out for a spot on one of the teams: the Hurl Scouts.

From there, Whip It proceeds in part as a low-stakes sports movie. The Hurl Scouts are on a long-running losing streak, and seem less interested in winning than they are simply participating in the game for its own sake. This appeals to Bliss as an outlet for her frustration and angst, but her natural talent and genuine excitement for the game sparks the other team members to aspire for more. The underdogs begin to actually listen to the coach, run his plays, and gradually improve until they’re squaring off against the leading team in the league, led by the vampy Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis).

Drew Barrymore

Ellen Page
Marcia Gay Harden
Kristen Wiig
Drew Barrymore
Juliette Lewis
Jimmy Fallon
Daniel Stern

Screenplay by
Shauna Cross

Even so, the movie never feels incredibly invested in the sport in terms of winners and losers, but only in how it serves as a vehicle for Bliss’ own self-actualization and how it empowers and gives life to the women who participate in it. On its face, derby appears to be a distinctly unfeminine sport, what with its full-body contact rules and encouragement of violence and injury. But while Barrymore doesn’t infuse the derby scenes with much directorial flair, she does capture that the sports’ seeming lack of femininity is exactly what makes it appealing. The punny team names, the themed uniforms, player personas, and make-up are crafted without any regard for the male gaze or what would be considered traditionally pretty or sexy. In fact, much of it is distinctly, intentionally un-pretty. The arena allows the women to freely and gleefully indulge their normally discouraged aggression and rage in a place where it is not only acceptable, but necessary for success. Names like Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly, and Maggie Mayhem,crafted by each of the players reflect the fun fantasy that’s being realized.

There’s plenty of teen movie drama happening around the action in Shauna Cross’ screenplay, here adapting her own novel Derby Girl. The central conflict lies with Bliss fighting for acceptance from her mother while also understanding that she only wants her to be happy. The film is squarely focused on female relationships, whether its mothers and daughters or supportive friendships strained by secrets. The cast of talented comedians is game to give laughs and emotional heft to the proceedings, from Alia Shawkat’s BBQ joint coworker and best friend to Kristen Wiig’s Hurl Scouts leader. Barrymore herself even appears as a particularly clumsy and violent team member, admirably unafraid to make herself the joke of any given scene. Whip It is generally full of good spirit, delivering a fun girl power anthem that encourages girls to just be girls, in whatever way that means to them.

Whip It is available on DVD & Blu-ray, and can be rented on most digital video platforms.