Double X, which is rather literally the sister site for Slate, ran some of my disputatious thoughts on Whip It!, the new Drew Barrymore-directed roller derby flick, last week. While I stand by the argument in this piece—namely, that the film relies for the most part on roller derby’s superficial sex’n’violence appeal without delving into the factors that make the sport really radical—but I wanted to add a few thoughts. Namely, that this movie is actually really good.
Grant, it does not aim to surprise. If you have ever seen a sports movie, you could recite about 80 percent of the plot beforehand. Ellen Page plays an outsider kid who discovers herself via roller derby, a sport—and alcohol-soaked subculture fringed with hot indie-rock boys—heretofore unknown to her. Guess who becomes the brightest new star in Texan roller derby? Who emerges all the stronger from heartbreak? Who faces down parental disapproval to chase her dream? YOU GOT IT!
Still, Barrymore and Page—along with an excellent, female-centric supporting cast—squeeze a lot more entertainment and a surprisingly cutting emotional tone out of this predictable story line. The depiction of roller derby’s scruffy, punk-rock-ish milieu reminded me, distantly, of the almost-right-but-oh-so-wrong take on hippiedom in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Page and Alia Shawkat, who redeems the dreaded best-friend role with a sassy, assured performance, make an adorable girl-bromance tandem. The rest of the cast is highlighted by the ever-awesome Kristen Wiig and the ever-terrifying Juliette Lewis, who plays the villainess with hammy élan and looks, these days, like the spawn of David Bowie and a carnivorous insect. On the male side, Jimmy Fallon completely phones it in, but Andrew Wilson’s psychotropic performance as Page’s coach is divertingly weird.
In the less than ten years since roller derby came roaring back from the dead, the media has more or less flogged it as a subject, with endless numbers of sensational stories on sexy girls with tattoos inflicting violence upon one another. (An old editor of mine, who toiled for years for a major men’s magazine, once told me that in about 2003, roller derby supplanted Burning Man as the story subject most often pitched by clueless freelancers.) In some ways, Whip It! marks the crescendo of this hype pattern. As such, though, it is far better than one might have expected.