I called it the former in my review, but not all is terribly clear in Drew Barrymore’s roller derby film. The story of Whip It! seems deliberately set in the ’80s and peppered with careless anachronisms from the ’00s. But you could look at it the other way: a story set in the ’00s with a nostalgic ’80s tone to it.
I’ve yet to read a single review that takes a side. The Real to Reel critic says, “I defy you you to figure out the time period of this movie,” and leaves it at that — probably the smart thing to do. But I wouldn’t mind getting more closure if possible, and so I watched the film again and made a list of items which favor an ’80s setting and an ’00s setting. I’ve also noted certain comparisons to Shauna Cross’ novel Derby Girl which the film is based on, and which is unambiguously set in the ’00s.
In favor of an ’80s setting:
* Today’s roller derby — the grass-roots feminist incarnation reborn in the year 2000 — doesn’t involve as much brawling and bruises as portrayed in the film. There’s some of that today, but not to the degree found in pockets of roller derby that were revived throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, which harked back to the “bloody derby” of the ’60s.
* The songs heard in the actual narrative are from no later than the ’80s. Bliss and Pash listen to The Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” (’77) on the car radio, and they sing & dance to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (’74) on the radio in the Oink Joint. Bliss’ mother and sister sing to Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” (’86) on the car radio. (In Shauna Cross’ novel, “Jolene” is never mentioned, and the song heard by Bliss’ mother and sister in the car is not by Whitney Houston, but Celine Dion from the late ’90s. There’s a lot of ’00s music in the book — The Hot Hot Heat, The Killers, etc. — not found in the film. The only exception is the song played on Oliver’s phonograph, on which see below.)
* The abundance of tank tops points to an ’80s setting: Corbi’s boyfriend, Bliss’ father, the guy in the shower with Pash, and many others. (In Shauna Cross’ novel, I didn’t catch any reference to tank tops.)
* Bliss tells her mother to stop “shoving ’50s womanhood down her throat”, in response to her mother’s claim that roller derby won’t help her get into college or find a decent husband. This implies that Bliss’ mother came of age in the ’50s, which would make Bliss a teen of the ’80s. (In Shauna Cross’ novel, there is no remark about ’50s womanhood and Bliss is clearly a teen of the ’00s.)
In favor of an ’00s setting:
* At the first roller derby game, the emcee announces: “Some of you may remember watching derby on TV back in the ’70s, but it was reborn right here in the heart of Texas, a true Austin tradition.” As I mentioned in my review, roller derby was reborn in Austin in the year 2000, not the ’80s.
* When Oliver tells Bliss that it looks like she’s wearing a Stryper shirt, she says, “Stryper? Yeah, ’80s Christian heavy metal.” This could be a reinforcement of the present — as if to say, “Yeah, of course; this is the ’80s: Christian heavy metal”. But we later learn that the shirt was her mother’s from many years ago, putting the ’80s in the distant past.
* Oliver has a CD of his band’s music. CDs came out in the mid-’80s, of course, but the plastic casing of the CD-ROM looks distinctly ’00s, like the dime-a-dozen used by everyone these days for home recording purposes.
* Common internet use makes an ’80s setting impossible. Bliss surfs Oliver’s website at school, and Bliss’ father uses Google (born in ’98) to search for videos of Bliss and roller derby.
In favor of an ’80s and ’00s setting at the same time:
* Oliver has a phonograph and zillions of record albums, plus his shelf on the left contain cases that look like audiocassettes (not CDs). It’s true that he’s a musician and that some audiophiles today continue to prefer record players, but they’re in the minority, and vinyl is hard to come by. Audiocassettes, of course, are completely passe. On the other hand, the record which Bliss plays is by Little Joy — the song “Unattainable”, which is from ’08. So this item counts toward either time period.
In other words, the film is a mess. But if we have to choose, I think it makes more sense to see Whip It! as an anachronism set in the ’80s, rather than a nostalgia set in the ’00s. The ’80s items are very deliberate (Barrymore didn’t mistakenly throw in tank tops, old music on the radio, and a mother mired in her ’50s values), while the ’00s cues are so commonplace and things we take for granted that they just seem like careless injections — so much that I didn’t even notice them on first viewing. The scenes involving the internet were probably carried over from Shauna Cross’ novel by sheer necessity. How else was Bliss supposed to discover that her boyfriend was cheating on her miles away? How else was her father supposed to see her in action on the skating rink, thus prompting him to reconsider allowing her to play in the league championship? And let’s not forget what Whip It! is really about at heart: Drew Barrymore’s love for ’80s films, themes, and settings, which she was evidently trying to portray.