Ellen Page can skate. Really skate. Roller derby-style to boot. That alone makes Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It worth seeing. But wait, there’s more….
Most people know Page for her Juno role, but the 22-year-old Oscar nominated actress from Nova Scotia already has a decade old career having been in over 25 films and TV programs. We know Page can act but it’s special to watch the actress continue to blossom. Special in that way you see Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun or Paul Newman in The Hustler where you see great talent being revealed.
Many actors have stumbled in trying to play convincing roles as an athlete so I appreciate it when it’s done well. It was not a safe choice for Page or Barrymore, but they pulled it off.
Now I remember the roller derby in its 1970s incarnation. Not that I was really a fan, but back then the roller derby was hard to miss because in a pre-cable TV and Internet world you only had three main channels to chose from. So on weekends somewhere between bowling, fishing and wrestling you had the roller derby. The roller derby was popular enough in the 70s to have a few films made about it including Unholy Rollers (1972), the documentary Derby (1972) and Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)–and let’s throw in the futuristic Rollerball (1975) for good measure.
Today the revival in roller derby is relatively small in comparison which may account for the soft opening this weekend at the box office. (That and people can’t seem to get enough of zombies.) But Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have put together a fine and entertaining film that also has a layer of wisdom in it, so I think it will continue to gather a following for years to come.
There is one scene, one line in particular (and this gives nothing away) that I thought was brilliant. It’s when Page’s character simply says, “I don’t want to be that girl.” It’s a moment that I don’t remember ever seeing in a film before and would benefit every teenage girl who is feed a steady diet of pop culture in regard to relationships. (Also part of that relationship plotline involves a t-shirt from the 80s Christian heavy metal band Stryper. I got a kick out of that as back in my L.A. days as a 16mm director and cameraman I shot an interview with Stryper’s lead singer Michael Sweet. If I find some photos from that shoot I’ll post them.)
At its core, Whip It is a coming-of-age story. Or as Save the Cat screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder calls it a rite of passage (ROP);
“The ROP yarn…has three telling indicator: (1) The Problem, (2) the ‘wrong way’ to fix it, and (3) the solution to the problem: acceptance.’”
There are trampings involved with any genre and it’s hard to be original when you are dealing with a story that centers around sports, but I think Barrymore and Cross bring some subtle nuances to the film. One being the role of the parents played by Marica Gay Harden and Daniel Stern. Stern of course brings clout not only with his Wonder Years background, but as being in one of the greatest coming-of-age films/sports films ever—Breaking Away. Great casting choice. And way to go in not making the parents total dorks. (Took a page from Juno there.)
From a screenwriting perspective I do think they missed a huge opportunity to show some three dimensionality by at least giving a nod to the fact that the tribe some girls may want to be in is being in beauty pageants. What if Page’s best friend in the film would have really been gung-ho for doing the pageant thing? That’s the kind of dynamic that made John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club stand out. We’re all different and we’re all in this together.
Recently actress Sela Ward, who was raised in Mississippi, said this in an interview with Parade magazine; “Growing up in the South, it’s all about manners and propriety. Every weekend, I went to charm school at the Sears department store, where I learned such fabulous tidbits as how to blot your face with a damp cloth to remove some of the powder and give yourself a little glow.” Not every girl is going to grow up and be dignified, refined and as graceful as Sela Ward. But those traits haven’t hurt her career any and there is still a man or two who finds that more attractive than blood and tattoos.
Two other missed opportunities were on the sound track. The dry opening to the film would have benefitted from a jump start montage of the roller derby girls intercut with shots of Page’s character getting ready for a beauty pageant with the song Roller Derby Saved My Soul by Uncle Leon and the Alibis playing. And on the credits Devo’s Whit It would have been a fitting tribute and left audiences with a big smile.
Whip It may not be as insightful as the classic Texas movie The Last Picture Show, but you could put it on the shelf with the old John Travolta/Debra Winger film Urban Cowboy. It’s a fun film with a few life lessons thrown in, and a wonderful start for Barrymore. And she can really skate, too.