Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Whip It Review and Derby in Popular Film

Whip It is a 2009 Ellen Page vehicle directed by Drew Barrymore and based on Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl. In the film, Bliss (Page) discovers roller derby, despite the limitations of living in a small Texas town under the watchful eye of her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who makes her compete in local beauty pageants. Supporting characters include her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), intriguing musician Oliver (Landon Pigg) and roller derby ladies such as Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), and Rosa Sparks (Eve).

Let's be frank: if you're reading this blog, you've probably already seen Whip It. Some of you might have come to derby specifically because seeing Whip It sparked or finally confirmed your interest in derby. Personally, I received a DVD copy of the film as a birthday present around the same time I started playing and planned a special showing with my partner, only to get impatient and watch it in secret. If you haven't seen the film, do so.

Whip It is good but not stellar. It's funny but impaired by a lot of sport movie and coming of age cliches. (My partner did give it points for having an actual sport tactic matter to the film's climax, however.) Its representation of derby culture, ranging from the physical challenges, to female rivalries and friendships to the often male coaches and implied male spectatorship is mostly spot-on. The game itself is misrepresented, as derby often is in television and film, as a no-boundaries contact sport, rather than a full-contact sport with checking but, say, no elbows to the face. For those who do want roller derby without penalties, this is what you're looking for.

The film's relationship with women is a mixed bag – it can be rightly commended as a feminist film, but one still perpetuating some tired stereotypes about women's bodies and (spoilers! Highlight to read) sex and what its relationship is to a woman's value. Bliss' mother misses a chance to correct this and it's sad to watch. As a fun film for derby enthusiasts and a fairly solid introduction to what roller derby can mean to a woman who feels frustrated by social or cultural limits on what she can do, Whip It does the job.

More broadly, Whip It is a good sign of the proliferation of roller derby culture. It's a derby film, penned and directed by women, largely driven by a female cast. The actors were extensively trained to skate and even in London, ON, our local Forest City Derby Girls partnered with a cinema to promote the sport at the film's premiere. That is astoundingly cool. At the same time, Whip It was a middling critical success and a definite commercial flop. And we need more roller derby films, more successful examples of the sport being depicted in entertainment. (Fun Fact: Zoe Bell, who played Bloody Holly in the film also played a roller derby player in the CSI: Miami episode, “Wheels Up” in 2011, which I'll review next week. Zoe was also Xena's stunt double.)

Modern roller derby has seemed to find more lasting success thus far when depicted in documentary style. The recent Hell on Wheels (reviewed by me here) and the A&E-tastic Rollergirls and the myriad of short derby docs making the rounds on Youtube (Brutiful is one) have received more consistent attention. Whip It is one of a very small number of feature films that attempt to portray roller derby as part of a story (the Rollerball remake with Chris Klein and LL Cool J does not count). And as I said, Whip It isn't perfect.

But it's pretty cool to have a solid roller derby film that isn't old enough to have featured a young Mickey Rooney

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