On the right track: roller derby skates into Boston

by Beacon Staff • September 30, 2009

debut. The movie is most interesting when the girls are spinning

their wheels. It's when they leave the track that the movie becomes one of the many coming-of-age, finding-oneself stories.,Roller skates are so 1970s, but don't tell that to the ass-kicking, short-skirt-wearing derby girls of Whip It, Drew Barrymore's directorial

debut. The movie is most interesting when the girls are spinning

their wheels. It's when they leave the track that the movie becomes one of the many coming-of-age, finding-oneself stories.

Whip It follows Bliss Cavendar (Juno's Ellen Page), an indie rock lover with a pageant-obsessed mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and an easygoing, sports fanaticfather (Daniel Stern). Filling the role of the best friend, co-worker and partner

in crime is Pash (Alia Shawkat, Maeby of Arrested Development), who encourages Bliss to indulge her rebellious side after she picks up a flier for roller derby.

Roller derby, the antithesis of the beauty pageants Bliss's mother pressured her to participate in, has the camaraderie she has been looking

for. In a series of lies, Bliss pretends

to be old enough to join, tries out for derby, and tells her parents she has an SAT class to prepare for while she hops on the senior bingo bus to the city to practice with her team, The Hurl Scouts, instead.

Roller derby is a violent combination

of speed skating and football, where the goal is to have a designated

skater (the "jammer") lap as many members of the opposing team as she can. Her teammates' jobs are to clear the track for her, and, at least in Whip It, pretty much anything goes-punches, trips, yanking, etc. Like football, the tactical aggression is part of the entertainment and appeal of the sport-and the movie.

Because of her speed on the track, Bliss is the jammer, despite not having worn skates since "they had Barbies on them"-and as such, her team relies heavily on her to carry it. Naturally, the fact that Bliss is playing illegally makes this a precarious gamble for her teammates,

who are unaware that their star skater is 17, not 22.

Unfortunately, Page seems to have been typecast as the misfit indie girl. Her character is essentially

the same as her role in Juno, sans the bulging baby belly. The movie feels at times like a snapshot

of Juno a couple years later instead of an entirely new character

and personality. Page is cute, but there's nothing new in her performance.

The more interesting characters are the derby girls, a tribe of tough, wild and loyal women who love the sport that allows them to indulge their competitive instincts and collectively

party afterward. Barrymore

is a little too unrestrained as Bliss' teammate, Smashley Simpson,

but Juliette Lewis steals the show in her scenes as Iron Maven, a member of a rival team. Adding compassion and humor to the mix is another one of Bliss' teammates, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), a single mom juggling derby and a young son. Also extremely lovable is their frustrated coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson), whose honesty

makes up for Jimmy Fallon's rather obnoxious commentator "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket.

Whip It does an excellent job of rounding out Bliss's relationships

with her mother, father and best friend, however it fails in this regard with her generic indie musician boyfriend, Oliver, who she meets when she randomly bumps into him at a derby; or her little sister, who apparently enjoys beauty pageants and could have been an interesting foil to Bliss's character. The scenes with Bliss and Oliver seem thrown into the film as a side plot, while her sister is virtually invisible after an initial scene. However, Page and Harden have a great mother-daughter tension,

and the heart to heart they have on the kitchen floor after days of battling each other is the best non-derby scene in the film.

Still, the roller derby scenes are the most enjoyable parts of the film by far, providing action, character and humor. The film could have benefited from more such scenes instead of digressing into side plots (no doubt followed so that Bliss' whole life experience could be shown). But when present, the scenes in the arena were some of the most well shot and cohesive parts of the film, with intensity that made the transitions to Bliss' normal life feel choppy.

With such an interesting portrayal

of an "alternative" sport, it would be hard to fault the audience

for leaving the theater wanting

to know where to find a derby rink, rather than what happens to Bliss after the end of the film. Whip It is a cute movie, ultimately interesting more for its athletic subject matter than the journey of its protagonist.