A big-hearted, grrl-powered high-five of a movie, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It suggests that there's no better therapy for a reluctant Southern belle than to strap on skates, get a kick-ass handle, and start using those elbows for something more exciting than a pageant wave. Its underage heroine, Bliss Cavendar (a delightful Ellen Page, making a confident leap to full-blown movie stardom), rejects a life of ball gowns and cotillion speeches to become Babe Ruthless, a roller-derby jammer on a team of Austin alpha babes (including Kristen Wiig and a hilariously gung ho, injury-prone Barrymore).
It says a lot for Barrymore's generosity as a director that she doesn't ridicule the girls on the pageant circuit or their moms (represented by Marcia Gay Harden, who proves both iron-willed and flexible). But her heart is clearly with the team and its rough-and-tumble camaraderie. Stocked with ace collaborators (cinematographer Robert Yeoman, editor Dylan Tichenor, music supervisor Randall Poster), the movie's powered by fist-pumping indie rock and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and its bone-jarring good cheer is infectious.
While the movie was sneak-previewing last weekend, real-life Nashville Rollergirl jammer Ramb0 Samb0 was playing in the Southern Fried Smackdown in Atlanta. Nashville didn't make the national finals, alas, but they put a 212-49 bruising on a West Texas team, sending opponents tumbling like tumbleweeds. Before she left, Ramb0 Samb0, her mom and aunt, and her boyfriend Eric Powell checked out the movie, and she approved all the way down to the heroine's unique concert attire. We now turn you over to an expert who knows just how hard concrete feels at high speed.
Eric, when the movie was over, you said, "This is like the Days of Thunder of roller derby." By that I take it you mean "near-documentary fidelity to the sport," right?
Yeah, the violence was a little over the top. Not that the sport isn't physical. The first bout I ever went to a girl broke her leg. But almost all the hits I saw in the film were illegal. Elbows are a no-no. Hollywood tends to do that to everything, though. It's a little known fact that sharks don't explode if you shoot an oxygen tank in their mouths.
So what did the movie get right, Samb0?
The movie got a lot of things right: The sportswomanship, the sisterhood and the die-hard attitude. Some folks think it's all about fishnets and mini skirts. This is a sport and these are athletes. They are also your family—you'd do anything thing for these gals. Those parts they did get right. The movie was not focused on the theatrics of banked-track roller derby fake fights, clotheslines, hair-pulling, etc. Even though some of that was in there, they did explain some of the rules and those are true.
That arena with the banked track looked a lot different from the Fairgrounds. Is banked track the exception or the rule?
The governing body of modern-day roller derby is Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Derby is played on a flat track now, although there are some leagues that still have banked track and some that have both. But to compete nationally you have to be a member of WFTDA, which means skating on a flat track.
Who did the best job of skating?
That's hard to say! Most of the actors had really bad posture. They looked like freshmeat skaters, which essentially they were. But at one point during a bout, a girl skates past with great form and some lovely derby thighs!
Did the character types remind you of anyone you know?
Yes! I can definitely pick out some characters from my own team and other teams that fit the skaters in Whip It. However, I'll keep those opinions to myself!
Are roller-derby announcers really that sleazy?
Not all, but most! Nashville has the best announcers! Atlanta does as well.
At a crucial point in the movie, without giving much away, Ellen Page gives a guy what we all agreed was a pretty wimpy slap. How would this have been handled in real life?
There would have been a beatdown! It takes less than what he did to Ellen Page for your teammates to have your back.
Austin is pretty much the epicenter of the roller-derby revival. Have you ever skated there, and is it as big a deal as the movie makes it out to be?
Yes, I have had the opportunity to skate in Austin. I learned a lot and had a great time. I think back in the day they had the banked track in a warehouse...maybe it still is. I skated with the flat track league. The crowd and fans were much smaller and tamer than the movie depicted.
Surely no rollergirl would wear something as uncool as a Stryper T-shirt. Right?
No—she'd rock out at their concert wearing yellow and black...and get there by her Chevy Celebrity station wagon. Color gray, of course! (sings) "To hell with the de-vil!"
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