It’s a nearly 75-year-old sport that often features scantily clad roller skaters hurtling around a track, elbowing and sideswiping one another with merciless abandon. By the end of the seventies, though, roller derby had all but disappeared in the United States; it seemed to sink beneath the weight of the pop culture kitsch it inspired (witness, or better yet, don’t, the 1972 Raquel Welch turkey Kansas City Bomber). Flash forward to 2001, when a group of Austin women ushered in an official revival. They adopted outlandish team names (the Rhinestone Cowgirls, Putas del Fuego) and professional wrestling—style personas (Hot Lips Dolly, Bettie Rage). Regarding themselves as real athletes as opposed to mere show people acting out predetermined outcomes, they invested roller derby with far more integrity than it had ever had in its previous incarnations. When their league proved unexpectedly successful—and began inspiring hundreds of new derby leagues all across the country—it seemed inevitable that Hollywood would come calling. But when Drew Barrymore announced that she would be directing a roller derby comedy-drama in Michigan, the reaction from many was dismay: How could such a uniquely Texas tale possibly be re-created in the bland environs of Ypsilanti?
There is cause for excitement and cause for despair about Whip It, based on a 2007 young-adult novel by Austin native Shauna Cross, who also wrote the screenplay. (It opens nationwide this month.) With the help of a few carefully selected exterior locations—the Alamo Drafthouse, Waterloo Records & Video—Barrymore does a reasonable job convincing us that a movie shot in the Rust Belt might actually be taking place in Texas. More to the point, she has an intuitive understanding of the flakes, slackers, stoners, and oddballs who make up the Austin hipster set; other than the occasional dreary mumblecore drama, this turns out to be one of the few films this decade to capture the syncopated beating heart of our capital city. And yet devotees of Texas roller derby may nonetheless find themselves disappointed by the glib portrait of the sport served up here. Focusing on a small-town Texas teenager named Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who finds transcendence as derby demon Babe Ruthless, Whip It is a sweet-natured coming-of-age story with a strong message of female empowerment—exactly the directorial debut you’d expect from Barrymore. What’s missing is the weirdness, the verve, and the sheer personality of the cultural phenomenon it purports to be about.
When we first meet Bliss, she’s suffering through yet another teen beauty pageant, a torture inflicted on her by her exceedingly proper Southern mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Puckish and restless—she dyes her hair blue just before the final round of the pageant—Bliss yearns to escape her fictional town of Bodeen and journey to nearby Austin, a promised land of head shops and used-record stores. These are, perhaps, just a bunch of familiar Texas clichés. (The broadness extends to the restaurant where Bliss works, Oink Joint BBQ, which features a giant pink pig on its roof.) But the superb lead actresses keep the movie from turning insulting. Harden, in particular, captures the frustration of a once beautiful woman now consigned to the tedium of adulthood. The exchanges between her and Page, a series of truces and transgressions between conservative mother and willful daughter, are tender and convincing, even if you’ve seen variations on them a million times before.
The trouble with Whip It, however, soon becomes apparent: It doesn’t really have anything to do with roller derby, and it gives frustratingly short shrift to the impact the leagues have on the lives of their participants. The original Austin derby girls saw the sport as a means of embracing their physicality and as an opportunity to build a unique, all-female business (see “Big Wheels”). But in Barrymore’s film, the sport functions as little more than a plot device, the rebellious means by which our heroine will finally assert her independence. Bliss learns about roller derby when two women come skating into a store in Austin where she’s shopping with her mother. She returns to the city a few days later with her best friend (Alia Shawkat) to witness a match between the Hurl Scouts and the Holy Rollers (“Girls so bad even God can’t keep them in line”). Afterward, two Hurl Scouts invite her to try out, not realizing she’s underage. Yet Bliss can sustain her double life—high schooler by day, Babe Ruthless by night—for only so long before her mother learns of her secret and forbids her to skate.
Was Barrymore, who also co-stars as the team’s most accident-prone member, Smashley Simpson, ultimately more interested in that which roller derby symbolizes (freedom! Tomboy chic! Grrl power!) than the actual nuts and bolts of the sport? Whip It features a clever primer on how derby is played and scored, delivered by an altogether wonderful Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen’s older brother), who plays the Hurl Scouts’ hirsute, easily exasperated coach. The matches themselves, though, are abrupt and awkwardly edited; it’s impossible to become emotionally invested in them. Most irritating is that each time the movie seems on the verge of flowering into a group portrait of the Hurl Scouts (pop star Eve and stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoë Bell also play teammates), we’re jerked back to Bliss’s increasingly rote coming-of-age saga, which includes an inevitable romance with a cute boy (Landon Pigg), who just as inevitably breaks her heart.
You witness the movie that might have been in glimmers. Saturday Night Live’s lovely Kristen Wiig turns up as Maggie Mayhem, a single mother who finds escape in her derby persona but who is also grateful to return home to her young son after each match. Even more arresting is Juliette Lewis, one of the great, unsung actresses of the past quarter century, who plays Iron Maven, Bliss’s chief rival on the Holy Rollers. The part is written as a conventional villain, the snarling troublemaker who threatens to sabotage Bliss by exposing her underage status to the derby authorities. But as played by a steely, never-more-gorgeous Lewis, she’s the most completely realized character in the movie—a 36-year-old who has clawed every inch of the way to get where she is and who will defend her tenuous position to the death. (The unavoidable parallels to the actress’s real-life up-and-down career only heighten the poignancy.) Every time Lewis is onscreen, she bares her teeth and bites through the conventionality. And for a few brief moments, Whip It does the Austin derby girls proud.
Big Wheels: Want to know how they really roll?
If you’re curious about the historical underpinnings of Whip It’s fictional story, check out Bob Ray’s documentary Hell on Wheels, which chronicles the formation of BGGW (Bad Girl, Good Woman), one of the Austin leagues responsible for the current roller derby renaissance. (The film is on DVD, but you can also watch it for free at snagfilms.com.) After premiering at South by Southwest, in 2007, Hell on Wheels played at a number of other festivals but never found theatrical release, perhaps because a rollicking first third gives way to a slightly picayune chronicle of labor disputes and intraleague squabbles. Still, Ray captures some delightful sights, including scenes from the very first matches featuring the Holy Rollers, and he puts forth a spirited portrait of a group of sometimes difficult but extremely determined women who took a man’s exploitative idea and skated with it to feminist glory.