I was expecting to write a scathing review of Whip It! when I went to see it in the theater last October, based on the qualified critical praise that it’s so wonderful despite being predictable and cliche-ridden. Disclaimers like that sound suspiciously apologetic, and having come of age in the ’80s I’m painfully aware of how pathetic underdog sports dramas really are. But it turns out the critics are right for a change. Although Whip It! has scenes practically copied-and-pasted out of films like The Karate Kid, it breaks with enough conventions in subtle ways that add up to surprisingly satisfying piece of cinema. It’s about a Texas girl, Bliss Cavendar, whose mother forces her to compete in beauty pageants until she stumbles across roller derby and falls in love with rough housing on the skating rink. Taking the name Babe Ruthless, she finds herself leading a team of losers to sudden victories, and even stunningly to the league championship. The question is how this story works where The Karate Kid, Hoosiers, and Rudy make you want to smash the screen. Most reviews offer evasive commentary on this point, so it’s worth spelling out the line items.
The first is the subject matter. I’ve always associated roller derby with white trailer trash, and make no mistake, this film largely confirms that stereotype (the inclusion of an Afro-American notwithstanding). To whatever degree roller derby’s come back in the ’00s owes to third-wave feminism — aspects of this post-feminist empowerment and “being your own hero” are unfortunately projected back onto the film’s ’80’s milieu — it remains at heart what it always was: an opportunity for coarse, tattooed he-ladies to mash and smash each other in the name of sport. But the film’s genius lies in running this athletic curiosity parallel to another southern subculture which is ten times as odious: beauty pageants. Bliss’ mother is basically a pageant fundamentalist, constantly reliving her childhood by squeezing her daughter into the glove of ’50s womanhood. Compared to the ghastly process of teenagers being made to look like polished manikins, roller derby suddenly doesn’t look so bad, and given its brutal and uninhibited nature even becomes oddly liberating. A sport in which illegal hits are encouraged as much as they draw penalties has a rather “indie” feel to it, and Whip It! does in fact play like an indie version of a coming-of-age sports film.
The second is that the underdog team is allowed to be true to form, and lose in the end when it really counts. Had the Hurl Scouts won the league championship, this review would have been less than kind. Barrymore seems to understand that if losers can be moved to overcome themselves in remarkable ways, the formula of complete victory doesn’t wash. Bliss gets in some amazing whips toward the end of the game, but they don’t work miracles like the Karate Kid’s last-minute crane kick which won him the tournament, or Rudy’s quarterback sacking which got him triumphantly carried off the field. Most refreshing is the way both teams go out completely self-satisfied — the Hurl Scouts’ chanting their usual “We’re number two!” — without any maudlin or falsely uplifting melodrama.
Which brings me to the third point: the film has the wisdom not to take itself too seriously. There are many places I was expecting the maudlin to kick in but it didn’t happen. The scene where Bliss tells the Hurl Scouts she can no longer be a team member is a case in point. She has just run away from home after a mean blowout with her parents, been disowned by her best friend, and now exposed as underage by the captain of an opposing team; she’s truly suffering. But her teammates don’t dwell on sympathizing, and Smashley even suggests that if Bliss can’t play she can be the team’s mascot — to a chorus of uproarious laughter. Seeing these ladies laugh their asses off in the face of Bliss’ misery is oddly believable. It’s little moments like these which set Whip It! above the usual sports films which are so overwrought.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its share of heavy moments, for it does. But they’re kept off the skating rink and in the messy turmoil of life where they belong. The reconciliation between Bliss and her best friend is genuinely affecting, and that between her and her mother even more so — strangely tender, softly but intensely played by both actors. It’s Ellen Page’s best scene, and proves wrong the critics who insist she’s only good for sarcasm and sass. Bliss Cavendar isn’t Juno. She’s deeply vulnerable and in the end at least willing to try seeing things from her mother’s alien point of view, and given the unspeakable nature of beauty pageants that’s saying a lot.
The soundtrack is one of the film’s major strengths. Aside from .38 Special’s “Caught Up in You”, there is thankfully no ’80s music to suffer through. If there’s one thing Drew Barrymore has a taste for, it’s decent music (anyone who doubts this should listen to the Celebrity Playlist Podcast she did with Ellen Page), and the most memorable track plays over the film’s most memorable scene: Bliss and her rock-singer boyfriend break into an indoor swimming pool, dive in, and hold their breath for long periods as they somersault, kiss and undress each other, all to the tune of Jens Lekman’s “Your Arms Around Me”. For me it’s the best scene, and one of the most special musical moments I’ve seen in a film for a long time.
As for my favorite scene that takes place on the rink, it’s the Hurl Scouts’ turning point. They are playing against the Fight Attendants and losing as they always do, when Coach Razor, completely fed up, rips out a page of his special plays and gives it to the coach of the Attendants, actually paying him 40 bucks to run the play against the Scouts. When the Attendants put the “stampede” into action, every single Hurl Scout gets slammed on her ass not knowing what hit her. The sight of these hopeless losers sprawled on the skating rink and seeing stars is to me immensely entertaining, as is Razor’s retort to the inevitable curses and traitor-accusations heaped on his head: he simply threatens to give away another one of his plays if the Scouts don’t start reading them and hauling ass. Coaches who stop at nothing to motivate underdogs are a dime a dozen in films like this, but I’ve never seen one actually coach the enemy in order to shaft his own team.
Incidentally, a word about the teams. We’re told at the beginning that there are five teams in the Austin League, but historically roller derby was reborn in Austin in the year 2000, not the ’80s. After the major shut down in ’73, there were several attempts to revive derby from the late ’70s through the ’90s, and pockets could be found in northern California, the midwest, the northeast, and Canada — but not Texas. Only this past decade did a true grass-roots feminist incarnation of the sport take wing in Austin. Whip It! is thus a confused anachronism. Drew Barrymore evidently set the story in the ’80s out of nostalgia (I’m glad someone has fondness for the ’80s, because I sure don’t), but it’s based on scriptwriter Shauna Cross’ experience of post-feminist derby when she played on a Los Angeles team in 2003.
Anyway, the five teams are as follows: (1) the Holy Rollers (the undefeated team in white and grey plaid uniforms, led by Juliette Lewis’ bullying character Iron Maven), (2) the Black Widows (looking glitzy and superhero in jet black), (3) the Fight Attendants (in pink and orange, and to whom Razor acts the turncoat by giving his special play), (4) the Hot Tamales (in red), and (5) the Hurl Scouts (the underdogs in green, particularly Page’s Babe Ruthless, but also Drew Barrymore herself playing the wildly adorable Smashley Simpson who throws more illegal hits — and gets smacked down in turn — than everyone else combined). I’ve no idea how historical these teams are, but if they’re really from Austin they’re not from the ’80s, and if they’re from the ’80s they’re not from Austin.
Whip It! isn’t Oscar-winning material, by any means, but given what we’ve come to expect from underdog sports dramas, it’s a very enjoyable story about a girl who just wants to break out of her life prison and have fun.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5.