Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Whip It! Film Review - (Spoiler Warning)

It's the moment we've all been waiting for .... an actual A-List movie about Roller Derby, made in living memory! (no, El Toupee those two made in 1972 don't count ;) )

Whilst Whip It! isn't due out in the UK until early next year, I'm fortunate enough to currently be in the States, where the movie premiered some weeks ago.

Those of you who are regulars of my blog will have already read Psychology Today 's Jeremy Clyman's rather dubious interpretation of the film and its lesbian fantasy elements (!) but I'll leave talking about his analysis for a later blog ... for now this is just about the movie.

Whip It! is a story about small town girl Bliss Cavendar.  Bliss's mum, or should I say 'mom', Brooke, is a former pageant queen, and pushes her daughter to follow in her footsteps, however Bliss is an indie-loving alternative teenager more at home in her DMs than in a ball gown.  On a shopping trip to the state capital Austin, Bliss bumps into some members of the Texas Roller Derby league TXRD and picks up a flier for their  upcoming display bout.  At the bout, she gushes to one of the skaters, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), that the members of the league have just become her new heroes.  Maggie replies with the message of the film, 'Put some skates on.  Be your own hero!'

And so Bliss removes her Barbie skates from a box in the attic and teaches herself to skate, speeding first around her neighbourhood streets, and then around the banked track in record time during the try-outs, earning herself a place on the track as a 'Hurl Scout', alongside the likes of Drew Barrymore (Smashley Simpson), Eve (Rosa Sparks) and LA Derby Dolls' Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica (The Manson Sisters).

Whilst the initial shots of the bout weren't particularly impressive or illustrative of roller derby, and I could imagine someone who had never seen the sport before might wonder from the brief snippets shown why Bliss becomes suddenly obsessed with derby quite literally overnight, the later scenes do make up for this.  The skating in the film is fast-paced, well shot and on the whole realistic, though I felt Drew Barrymore's character Smashley, clearly put in the film for humour value, only really served to degrade the view of Derby presented by the film.  Smashley Simpson was constantly drunk and extremely violent, breaking basic derby rules in almost every scene, and seeming to get away virtually scot-free.  There are a couple of awesome moves in the film, notably a two-man leg whip in the final jam of the championship final, and Xena stunt double Zoe Bell skates admirably in her role as Bloody Holly.

I absolutely loved the Hurl Scout uniforms, and thought the names for the five teams in the TXRD league were all brilliant, especially the 'Fight Attendants'.  All of the skaters had awesome Derby names - Babe Ruthless, Princess Slayer, Jabba the Slut, Kame Kaze, Eva Destruction ... but before you try and pinch any of them, they are all taken from active Derby girls!  In fact the real Babe Ruthless (Bliss's skater name) has actually just moved from Arizona to skate with TXRD!

But now for the rest of the film ....
I said I wouldn't mention Jeremy Clyman's article, but can I just say ... he claimed Whip It! could have been about any sport, and that Roller Derby was in no way essential to the film.  I completely disagree.  Frankly, if it weren't for the Roller Derby, there would be very little to the film.  Various issues are explored, but all rather half-heartedly.  The relationship between Bliss and her boyfriend Olly (singer Landon Pigg) is developed wonderfully, with a montage of really cute, yet not cliched scenes ... only for him to cheat on her whilst away on tour.  This could have been used really well, to show Bliss using the anger to skate faster and harder, but she basically just shrugs off his infidelity, and the good thirty minutes of the film used to develop the relationship, and that's the end of that!  There is also a sub-plot of Maggie Mayhem's single parenthood ... but again this is done somewhat half-heartedly, and you come away wondering why they bothered casting the little ginger boy as her child!  The film is funny in parts, but there are also numerous cringey moments, where you can see that humour is being attempted, but in my opinion falls flat.  Similarly some of the acting is rather hammy, and not just from the many real derby girls enlisted in from US leagues for the film.

Page is convincing in her role as Bliss, though I couldn't help feeling the character wasn't a big departure from her defining role in Juno.  The relationship with her parents was interesting, and the contrast between Bliss and her pageant loving younger sister Shania highly amusing.  Bliss's best friend Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) makes a brilliant sidekick, and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) is a formidable and wonderfully detestable arch-rival! Whilst Drew Barrymore's character is little more than a slap-stick add-on to the film, her directing is nearly flawless, and you really wouldn't know it was her debut behind the camera.

Despite its short-comings, I would still recommend going and seeing the film.  It IS a historic moment in Roller Derby, as suddenly the sport is being thrust into the headlines and onto magazine covers.  Whilst the way it is being publicised (something I will discuss in the 'Lesbianism and Whip It' blog later this month) is perhaps questionable, the film has already dramatically increased coverage and awareness of roller derby, and can only serve to encourage hordes more girls worldwide to try the sport.

So, grab the rest of your Derby girls, and head down to your nearest cinema the moment the flick finally hits UK screens.  And when it does, let me know what you think!

Jet Stepper


  1. Actually, the real "Babe Ruthless" skates with TXRG, the WFTDA league in Austin, not the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls (banked track).

  2. The "Fight Attendants" are based on the real banked track LA Derby Dolls (LADD) team "Fight Crew". They were the 2006 champions, but are now the league underdogs. They won their first game this year (out of 4 in-league, and one between other leagues) October 24. Against Shauna "Maggie Mayhem" Cross's former team, the Sirens. Rachel "Iron Maiven" Piplica was their manager, and also designed and made their uniforms through her "Iron Doll Clothing" company. She was also one of Cross's teammates on the Sirens until 2006.

    The "Hurl Scouts" are based on the LADD's "Tough Cookies", last year's champions and undefeated this year in three games in-league, one with an outside league. Rachel "Iron Maiven" Piplica is their captain and the league's best strategist (and received a serious knee injury in her team's September game).

    The "Holy Rollers" is a real TXRD team that dominated their league for several years.

    Coach "Razor" is based on LADD's coach from 2003-2006, Brian "Blade" Gallagher. Right down to the dune buggy, dolphin necklace and his frustration that the skaters weren't taking the game seriously enough. He was the coach for the whole league, not just one team. The league coaches are now active team skaters and those who have recently "retired".

    The track used in the film was designed by James "Bitchy Kitten" Jones, who also designed the LADD track. And he built the giant pink pig on the roof of the BBQ shack in the film (which is what he does for a living). He was also a referee, at one time kicking his skater wife out of a game.

    The film is a snapshot of the way the new wave of old roller derby was in 2005, both banked and flat track. Since then, the game has matured, and fighting is a rarity and sport-wide embarrassment, for both banked and flat track roller derby. But the book was being written in 2005, so the film is something of a period piece.

    I agree with those who see roller derby in the movie as what Alfred Hitchcock called "a MacGuffin". It gives the movie its special character, but it is simply a "coming of age" plot device. It's just that most of the other sports were already taken.

    It's too bad that there was a certain disrespect directed at skaters who discovered the sport later in life (or more likely, actually started the league when they were in their 30s).

    The undertone that the aged 35 year old "Iron Maven" (Juliet Lewis) should step aside to make room for the young and upcoming "Babe Ruthless" (Page), is an insult to those skaters who discover their derby career later in life, balance it with adult responsibilities, and kill themselves to get in and maintain a physical condition sufficient to be truly competitive with 20 somethings. Whose endurance and rapid recovery from injury is a perk that comes with their youth.

    Fortunately, if there are any mean skaters in real life like the "Maven" film character, they are so rare no one fesses up to knowing one. All the ones I've heard of, are supportive and actively train new skaters.

    "Whip It" was a charming movie with a satisfying story that had roller derby in it that is worthy of far more more success. But it wasn't a movie about roller derby.