TORONTO — “Whip It” — Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut that stars Ellen Page (“Juno”), Juliette Lewis and Kristen Wiig — opens Friday, providing a bit of distance from the visceral smash-bang of real live roller derby. It also has movie stars. A heavy surge of girl-power. And a sense of perfect timing, given what appears to be roller derby’s international comeback (thousands crammed into a “Whip It” event in this city’s Dundas Square during the recent film festival, temporarily gridlocking midtown).
“It’s definitely having a resurgence,” Page said at her onetime hometown film festival, where “Whip It” premiered, “but it’s pretty underground. I went to my first match with Drew and was blown away by the whole world they’ve created, and the theatrics, and the passion behind it. But first and foremost, that it’s really a sport. And that’s what they care about.”
But “Whip It” is also less about violent action than emancipated girlhood: In suburban Texas, debutante-to-be Bliss Cavendar (Page) is being groomed by her obsessive-compulsive mother (Marcia Gay Harden) for life as a Southwestern socialite, but what she really wants to do is skate — although she doesn’t realize it until she sees the Austin-based Hurl Scouts and members Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell). Bliss takes to the banked rink — as Babe Ruthless — and, despite incurring the enmity of Iron Maven (Lewis), skates to glory. The camaraderie, the Hurl Scouts cheer of “We’re No. 2,” the fact that getting the boy isn’t the be all/end all of existence, all make “Whip It” a movie with multiple messages.
“When I read the script,” Page said, “the reason I was so excited I was in it was the thought that if I were 12 years old and this movie was coming out, I would have been flipping my lid. I would have been so excited, largely because I wasn’t that female ideal of what the media says we should look like, what we should buy, this strange idea of what femininity is — makeup, doing whatever we can to get the boy and the idea that the body has be this skinny, sick-looking thing, rather than about strength. I always played sports. I didn’t wear eyeliner till I was 17. Anyway, I would have lost my mind.”
For Barrymore, who’s been acting since she was a baby, the script by first-timer Shauna Cross (based on Cross’ young-adult novel) was a “perfect first fit,” partly because she’s an actress directing a rink-load of actresses, and also because she’s female. One scene, a rather chaste underwater love sequence between Page and Landon Pigg, likely wouldn’t have been shot by a male director.
“When I’m given a love scene, I hate acting them out because they’re awkward and weird,” Barrymore said. “When they’re done well, they’re brilliant, but I hate doing them myself. So I thought, ‘How can I capture the joy of first love, make it cinematic, make it fluid, pun intended. For those who hate it, I apologize. Anything you love or hate about the movie is absolutely my fault.”
What Page, Lewis and Wiig found notable about the roller derby scene was its diversity. “There are so many types of people who get drawn to it,” Lewis said. “Young, old, all different body shapes, nurses, students, mothers, punk-rock girls.”
Wiig said one woman skater she knows is a schoolteacher with tattoos and pink hair. “When she goes back to work, she dyes it back,” she said. “But that’s her derby persona. It allows women to be physical and kick (butt), but in talking to some of the derby girls, they are like family, and it’s not about guys, or guys coming to watch; they don’t talk about guys. It’s their own thing. At the same time, they get black eyes and fall and tear their arms open. And rip their stockings. It’s awesome.”
All of the actresses had to learn to skate. There was even a skating audition. And a bit of bluffery. “Like any good actor,” Lewis said, “I lied. ‘Oh my God, I skate every weekend, what, are you kidding?’ I hadn’t put on a pair of skates in eight years.”
“I got in really good shape,” Wiig said. “Then, we stopped shooting, and I went back to usual.”
Screenwriter Kirsten Smith (“Legally Blonde”), who helped mentor Cross and her screenplay and is a producer on “Whip It,” says that what turned into a five-year project was always about the same thing.
“I think that roller derby is a conduit to power,” she said. “And self-confidence, and self-love and the feeling you can do anything. It’s very feminine because of the costumes, and it’s a little bit tough because of the action. In a way, you get to be a girl’s girl and a guy’s girl, and that’s really exciting.”
RAQUEL WELCH WAS ON A ROLL IN ‘KANSAS CITY BOMBER’
In the seminal 1972 sports extravaganza “Kansas City Bomber,” the bodacious Raquel Welch got jostled, hassled, mangled and tackled, all in delicious slo-mo. (The girl-on-girl action, implied and otherwise, is considerably less pronounced in Drew Barrymore’s new “Whip It.”) Directed by Jerrold Freeman and co-starring Kevin McCarthy and Cornelia Sharpe, “KCB” starred Welch at the peak of her babe-aliciousness, which was pretty much the sole purpose of the movie.
Skates. Spandex. Hot showers. Rough action. All meant to advertise Welch’s, shall we say, gifts, as she portrays a single mom with two kids tying to make it as a pro skater in a world of envious women, devious men and banked turns.
“I really like ‘Kansas City Bomber,’ ” said “Whip It” star Ellen Page. “And Raquel’s male stunt double, which I love. But I got more excited by this little girl who played her daughter. I was like, ‘This kid is sooo good,’ and I’m like, ‘Jeez, that looks like Jodie Foster.’ So I Googled it and was like, ‘Oh my God, it IS Jodie Foster!’ She’s unbelievable.”
Foster would go on to do some better-known (and better) movies, Welch would make “Mother, Jugs and Speed,” and Freeman would direct Scott Baio in “The Boy Who Drank Too Much.” Sometimes, you crash into the guardrail, and sometimes you glide around the rink.
There have been other skate-themed films: “Roller Derby Girl” a 1949 short subject, and “The Fireball” (1950), starring Raquel Welch’s antithesis, Mickey Rooney. But after “Kansas City Bomber,” the best known of the roller flicks is probably “Unholy Rollers,” the R-rated 1972 feature with Claudia Jennings playing a factory worker who quits to become a roller-derby star. Jennings, the 1970 Playboy Playmate of the Year, died in a car crash in 1979.