How many of you out there remember the Golden Ages of roller derby in the 50’s, the 70’s or even during the depression in the 30’s. For me, coming from Philly, roller derby in the 70’s was a staple of entertainment – particularly for viewing on UHF television. And while roller derby and the Philadelphia Warriors were banking those turns and jamming their way into the hearts of the crowd, my dad was reminding me of derby back in the 50’s. But roller derby wasn’t just in Philly. It was reigning supreme across the country because as Drew Barrymore describes it, “you don’t have to be a certain body shape or ethnicity or economical background.” As things do, however, derby slowly faded only to be reborn in the late 90’s with a whole new look and feel. According to screenwriter and roller derby diva Shauna Cross aka Maggie Mayhem of the LA Derby Dolls, in today’s roller derby, “the personas and the characters are very over-the-top, sexual, flamboyant and burlesque. But then the game is completely real.” So what do you do when you’re writer Shauna Cross who also happens to have this great love of derby? You take this “elixir” for survival and turn it into a novel called “Derby Dolls.” Then no sooner do you sell the novel than you pitch the story to Drew Barrymore and Flower Films as a feature film. And if you’re real lucky, you have Drew Barrymore fall in love, not only the backdrop of roller derby, but with a story about coming of age, mothers and daughters, and “the struggles we go through with our parents when our version of our futures are not the same” and then have her decide to make what is now known as WHIP IT, her directorial debut.
Bliss Cavendar is your typical struggling teen in a little truck-stop of a town in Bodeen, Texas. Long dreaming of escape, she is trapped in a world engulfed by her former beauty queen mother whose only desire and mandate is to clone Bliss as herself. After all, the only successful women in the world are beauty queens. But Bliss just doesn’t fit the beauty queen mold. She wants to wear Doc Martens, dye her hair blue, dream big and travel beyond the confines of Bodeen. For what exactly she doesn’t know. She just knows that there’s something more for her than tiaras.
With trepidation and baby steps, Bliss and her best friend Pash sneak away from Bodeen one night, traveling to Austin to see a women’s roller derby game. Life for Bliss will never be the same. Seeing a freedom and joy in the game, the crowd and the skaters, it doesn’t take long for Maggie Mayhem, one of the star players of the game, to convince Bliss to try out for the team. Driven by blind faith and determination, Bliss skates every waking minute of every day, pushing herself harder and harder, determined to make the team. And did I mention she’s doing this behind her parents’ backs? As if skating isn’t enough, toss in Bliss’ love for her mother and the fact that she doesn’t want to disappoint her, so Bliss continues with her beauty pageant duties. Derby darling Babe Ruthless by night, pageant princess by day, how long can Bliss continue with this double life. But let’s toss a first love into the mix – Oliver, a musician and derby fan who falls for Bliss the minute he sees her (a driving factor in her decision to skate).
But what happens when and more importantly, what happens when a doting sports-junkie Daddy does a little research and finds out just who his daughter really is – the star of the derby – and that she’s incredible.
Ellen Page carries the film as Bliss aka Babe Ruthless. Retaining the screen presence she displayed not only in “Juno” but “Hard Candy”, Page proves that she no flash in the pan. She is a delight as transforms on screen from an innocent shy child to a mature woman with her own voice, and one who learns to use that voice. Balancing the duality of Bliss/Babe, Page is emotionally dynamic, particularly in her scenes with Marcia Gay Harden who plays her mother, adding a beauty and depth to the often tumultuous mother-daughter relationship. Adding more fuel to the fire, Page does her own skating and according to co-star and stuntwoman extraordinaire, Zoe Bell, “Ellen is the fastest woman on the track and can really take a hit.” For Daniel Stern, who plays Bliss’ dad, every parental instinct just welled up in him the first time he walked on set and saw Page slamming into and flipping over a rail. “I was worried but I was so proud of her.” Written by Cross with Page in mind, “I knew Bliss was going to be really different. Ellen’s Bliss is definitely more vulnerable. She’s juggling, finding her way. I think it’s neat to see this softer side of Ellen. I think she’s crazy beautiful. It’s fun that we see a little more of her giddy and sort of blooming sexuality. I think she’s a little closet sexpot.”
The supporting cast are no slouches either. Practicing skating, laps, jumps and jams, every day for over a month – and in some cases three months – the likes of Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell and Eve not only bring an authenticity to their characters derby personas, but a camaraderie and familial sense that follows through with the film’s theme. Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem (named by screenwriter Cross for herself) is a wonderfully multi-faceted character, providing a fun loving, yet serious motherly tone. As for Lewis, her natural hard edge makes her the perfect antagonist to Bliss as Iron Maven. And talk about a surprise! Do not miss my fellow Philly girl, Eve, who is dynamite as Rosa Sparks – one bad ass broad, much like Judy Arnold of the 70’s Warriors. For Eve, this is a role she relishes, perhaps due to her own mother’s excitement as mom remembers derby in Philly and has shared that excitement with her daughter. Zoe Bell, though, is as hard core as it gets. Professional stuntwoman who began her career doing stunts on “Zena: Warrior Princess”, Bell is not only kick ass as Bloody Holly, but handled some extremely difficult skating work and, according to Eve, sustained more bruises than anyone else. Also lacing up is Barrymore herself who does a nice little turn as the hippie-esque Smashley Simpson.
Stepping away from the track, not to be missed as the superb talents of Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern as Bliss’ parents. They are ideal as the Cavendars; so real, so believable with a natural marital comfort between them. They are, well, such PARENTS, particularly Stern with a “pick your battles with mom” ideology. Stern really just grabbed my heart as Dad. The pride he shows in his little girl – from his discovery of Bliss’ true calling to his involvement as a true dad in the ongoing mother-daughter arbitrations of life, Stern stole my heart. And never moreso than when buying Bliss memorabilia. I about fell out of my chair with aline about the photo card costing $3.00 – “$3.00? $3.00? It’s only cardboard!” I thought my father was up there on screen. As for Harden, she embodied and captured that typical mother-daughter love-hate relationship to a tee.
As a screenwriter, Cross has done a magnificent job melding Mrs. Cavendar’s 1950’s pageant world with Bliss’ 21st Century roller derby. The story is simple and actually sweet and very coming of age. And with a roller derby backdrop, totally out of the ordinary for a scenario but it works exceptionally well and adds an interesting dynamic to the storyline.
Technically the film is exceptional. Barrymore has more than proven herself with this film. Spending three years, from inception to release, her passion for the project is evident. Daniel Stern, himself also a director, was in awe of Barrymore’s preparation and focus, not to mention her ability to jump from in front of the camera to behind it and balance the subjective and objective viewpoints. Zoe Bell found Barrymore’s thoroughness and openness to change or suggestion for achieving her vision, refreshing and welcoming. Calling on Wes Anderson favorite, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, multiple interiors and exteriors required lighting and lensing of not only of different sets and scenes, but completely different dynamics and times of day and night, all of which are shot with a continuity and clarity that flows. Entertaining to a fault, there is no doubt in my mind that Barrymore than paid attention over her years on movie sets for as a director, her vision is clear, her execution is clean, crisp and entertaining.
With this film, as with a big action film, the potential for injuries reigned supreme. Not one to take chances with her actors and concerned about their well being, “ As far as the medical insurance I just said, ‘Get the best you can because these girls are going out there and doing their own stunts. So, do whatever it takes. I am not going to second guess this.’ We didn’t do that on the Charlies movies [skimp on medical] and I wouldn’t have done it here. It’s so important with the actors doing their own stunts. It just gives you such a better emotional and excitable investment to see the people really going off and doing what they’ve learned. “
A big key to the fun and energy of this film, besides the roller derby, is the soundtrack. It is killer! For Barrymore, “music is really, really everything.” “We had over 75 music cues, which for any film is very unorthodox and is far greater than most films” which she had to narrow down into a 19 song soundtrack which Rhino Records will be releasing. Each song perfectly suited to the action, to each scene. Barrymore achieved real perfection here. Adding a personal touch to the track is some work by singer/songwriter Landon Pigg who also appears in the film as Bliss’ first love, Oliver.
I left the theatre feeling EXUBERANT after seeing this film and so will you. I enjoyed it so much, I’m ready to be whipped around the track again! To put it simply, DREW BARRYMORE WHIPS UP A WINNER WITH WHIP IT!
Bliss – Ellen Page
Pash – Alia Shawkat
Oliver – Landon Pigg
Maggie Mayhem – Krisin Wiig
Bloody Holly – Zoe Bell
Rosa Sparks – Eve
Earl Cavender – Daniel Stern
Directed by Drew Barrymore. Written by Shauna Cross.