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 one-time 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.”
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.”