Roller derby, a coach in Drew Barrymore’s new movie Whip It reminds us, is more than fishnets and tough stage names. But it’s undeniable that the sport, in which roller-skating women—yes, often in fishnets, short skirts and heavy eyeliner—race around a track, body-checking and tripping opponents along the way, has a certain allure. To paraphrase the same coach character, it’s a contact sport, and the players certainly “make contact.”
Set in and around Austin, Texas, Whip It follows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page, of Juno fame), a meek high-school senior with misfit tendencies, who gets in touch with her ballsy self when she ditches the beauty pageant circuit in favor of Austin’s derby scene. Coming in to her own as ace-in-the-hole Babe Ruthless for her team, the Hurl Scouts, Bliss keeps her beloved derby life a secret from her parents, especially her former beauty-queen mom. Along the way, Cavendar falls for a tight-pantsed indie dude, makes an enemy of a competing derby star (Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven) and befriends her crazy teammates, like “your favorite Whole Foods clerk” Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mahem (Kristen Wiig).
Bliss has to figure out whether embracing her new life will mean leaving behind her old one, including her family and her best friend and partner-in-crime Pash (Alia Shawkat), who is as determined as Bliss to leave small-town
Along the way, Bliss butts heads with several people, mostly women, but the film handles these opponents in a much more sympathetic way than most do. In fact, apart from a brief segue into “stalking is a compliment” territory, no hugely offensive sexist themes stuck out in this movie, a breath of fresh air for a wide release.
As an edgy, angsty type, Bliss clashes with the beauty pageant scene, including a malicious fellow contestant who harasses Bliss at work and school. This nemesis is the only female character whose behavior the film doesn’t bother to excuse—she’s just the kind of bitchy, vapid girl who would tape up naked Barbies in someone’s locker to hurl the ultimate insult, that Bliss and Pash are gay. But another beauty pageant contestant, although she and Bliss will never be great friends, still garners sympathy as an insecure girl in the judgemental pageant world. She and Bliss still treat each other kindly, and the girl plays an interesting part in helping Bliss and her mother reach common ground.
Bliss’ mother, played brilliantly by Marica Gay Harden, also represents the pageant world, which disgusts Bliss as a 1950s-style idea of womanhood. The conflict and resolution between mother and daughter, both tough women, is realistic and touching. Even when the issue of sex comes up in a conversation between them, it’s treated with remarkable sensitivity—no slut shaming or exploitation in sight, just one woman helping another understand herself.
In her derby world, Bliss inspires jealousy in derby star and opponent Iron Maven (Lewis—is she ever not amazing?) who feels threatened by the rookie savant. But even this competitive relationship is more than one tough, aging woman’s jealousy of her young opponent. Maven’s admission to Bliss about how long it took her to find something she was really good at, and how hard she had to work to get there, is such a genuine, thoughtful portrayal of a character who is otherwise ruthless. Maven knows Bliss has years and years of derby ahead of her. It doesn’t seem fair that it came so easily to someone so young. But when Maven has a chance to force Bliss out of the league, Maven prompts Bliss to make peace with her two identities. Maven even admits that she doesn’t want to force Bliss out on a technicality; she wants to beat Bliss on the track.
I won’t tell you what happens in the derby tournament, or the details of the naïve-first-love story, except to voice my approval at the fact that Bliss doesn’t take shit from anyone, and the fact that sex is neither omitted nor exploited in this movie. I also want to commend Ellen Page for managing to take off tights in a swimming pool.
For a great time at the movies, go see Whip It when it comes out tomorrow. For a great time at derby, go see your local roller girls.