Here was my first response when I attended a real-life women’s roller derby: wow, I want to do that. Several seconds later my response was, I am afraid of those women’s elbows and fists. And finally I thought, no matter how cool all these women are, this performance is just straight-up exploitation for men’s benefit…AGAIN. Drew Barrymore’s roller derby dramedy and directorial début Whip It hasn’t helped to clear up the confusion, maybe because the film has issues of its own. Or maybe because women’s roller derby is just a crazy, heightened combination of empowerment and exploitation. In other words, it’s a lot like the rest of women’s experience in 2011 America.

The first and most obvious thing that makes roller derby so appealing is the subversion of gender stereotypes built on top of over-the-top gender stereotypes. When Ellen Page (above) joins a team that calls themselves the Hurl Scouts, she’s granted a new stage name: Babe Ruthless (awesome). Other great skaters on the teams include Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, who brings every ounce of poisonous bitchiness to this role), Bloody Holly, Princess Slaya, and Eva Destruction. AWESOME. When I saw real-life teams compete, their names included:

  • Lucille Brawl
  • Rita Menweep
  • Beth Threat
  • Anna Mosity
  • Reyna Terror
  • Sedonya Face
  • …and a shoutout to the queen of them all, the stunning Dinah-Mite (ret.)

C’mon, doesn’t that make you happy, even if you learn nothing else about the sport? It inspired me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking up stage names. It’s also worth noting that real roller derby is way more empowering than in this film because the women who do it are big, scary, strong, and really fast — no one as teeny as Ellen Page or Juliette Lewis would survive. And no matter how big and strong they are, they break a lot of bones and occasionally put women in wheelchairs — facts that have kept wussy ol’ me off the track.

So you can see that in comparison to the real thing, the film’s version of roller derby seemed a little tame — or, to be specific, it seemed eager to tame roller derby. Its opening is great: small-town girl Bliss (Page) is being pushed into competing in teen beauty pageants like Miss Bluebonnet by her mother (the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden; who else could have brought such a realistic gravitas to this part?), but she can’t help herself from dying her hair blue for such events. No wonder she’s entranced when, on a shopping trip to Austin, she catches a glimpse of some of these alterna-girls on skates. She hunts down her old Barbie skates, sneaks back to audition for the team, and wows the coaches for her speed. She’s in.

This is the kind of film you need to watch with low expectations, like it’s already a cult film, because once you set aside some of the bad dialogue, the half-hearted acting, and the clichés, it’s got great little elements. Who doesn’t want to see Drew Barrymore wail on another player (left)? I’ll see anything with Alia Shawkat — she played Maeby on Arrested Development and appears as Bliss’s BFF here — and it’s got the best soundtrack with a slightly disorienting number of classic country and rock tunes (“So Caught Up In You” by .38 Special, which is suprisingly listenable in this context, and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which is always excellent). The movie explains the slightly confusing sport of roller derby efficiently so you actually understand it better than if you just attend a live bout. Every once in a while there’s a great line, like (from Maggie Mayhem): “Well, put some skates on. Be your own hero.” There’s a sweet scene as Bliss and her father (Daniel Stern) watch football on TV and Bliss impresses him by knowing a lot about what makes a good block. And (SPOILER ALERT) Bliss starts dating a cute, groovy guy who’s a member of a band, but the film concludes with her getting rid of him (awesome).

But it takes a while for Bliss to get rid of the dude and the film spends a lot of time with hackneyed clichés, the worst of which is a ridiculous underwater makeout scene/montage. (Honestly?) More broadly, the critic in me can’t help being disappointed just a little bit in Ellen Page, who doesn’t quite bring her Juno A-game to this part — even as she always makes me want to say how much I love seeing women like her who don’t fit that willowy, supermodel mold. I’m not sure whether this should be blamed on Barrymore as a rookie director or on Shauna Cross’s script (based on her novel of the same title).

So between the unrealistically svelte rollergirls, the girl-on-girl kiss in the hot tub that appeared just a little bit too much for dudes’ benefit … whatever the cause, the film sits contentedly at that three-stars-out-of-five place. Just go out and see some rollergirls yourself and try to figure out what you think of the real thing — and start thinking about your own stage name.

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“I Know Where I’m Going” — I’ve seen it probably five times now and can attest that it’s a really good film that gets better on multiple viewings. It could be seen as the film that inspired “Local Hero” with its elegiac images of the Scottish coast, except here the redemption comes in the form of love with the right man. If you’ve never seen it, prepare yourself for a quiet movie with the slightly improbable matchup of the brittle Wendy Hiller and the goofy-looking Roger Livesey (who, at 40-ish, simply could not pass for the early 30s he’s supposed to be). But their acting is perfect: Livesey is a good man; Hiller is redeemed. 

Oh, the makeover narrative — a stock aspect of the “woman’s” film. Most fully realized in Pride and Prejudice (in which both Elizabeth and Darcy must change) and satisfyingly re-created in the BBC version of “North and South” (curiously, not in the Gaskell novel, however), this storyline appeals again and again.  It’s worth noting that love isn’t always the main plot device; highly satisfying makeover narratives appear in films such as Judy Davis in “My Brilliant Career” all the way through the winsome Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” Clearly, the transformation doesn’t need a wedding altar scene at the end.

We can argue about the implications of narratives that transform the heroine through love, but let’s quickly point out the differences between female and male makeovers. First, I believe that female makeover tales most often require interesting male counterparts, three-dimensional creatures interesting on their own — whereas male makeover films seem to invariably feature what Nathan Rabin of The Onion calls the “manic pixie dream girl archetype.” Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Sandra Bullock in “Forces of Nature,” these women’s unpredictability and full embrace of life allows them to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is pure plot device, not a character worthy of an inner life or transformation. (Sidebar: Holly Welker has a piece this month that ties this archetype to Helen Andelin’s 1963 classic, Fascinating Womanhood, a book that might be termed the anti-Feminine Mystique [also published 1963].) The manic pixie dream girl merely permits the elaboration of self by the man.

It’s not that Roger Livesey is a terrifically complex figure in “I Know Where I’m Going,” but he’s the embodiment of the magic of Scotland’s Western Isles — poor but noble (like his namesake, the Colonel’s golden eagle), modest and well-mannered, familiar with everyone on the island, and a fine contrast to the rich industrialist Hiller intends to marry. Livesey grows on her, and on us; his aging, goofy looks become handsome as his admirable qualities become more pronounced. We imagine their marriage as a happy partnership of equals. Likewise, Peter Sarsgaard might have stolen “An Education” had it not been for the perfect performance by Mulligan — he subtly transforms from dashing to oh-so-slightly fleshy and deluded during the course of the film. His initial glamour is slowly exposed as a lack of depth as it becomes clear that the con man is conning himself, while Mulligan gains complexity by learning the hard way.

Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Drew Barrymore’s male counterparts in her string of makeover movies (“Home Fries,” “Never Been Kissed”) weren’t three-dimensional, either. But take a look at how hard Livesey works in this scene to mitigate the snarky comments by the locals about Hiller’s fiancé. He’s a good man. Makeover movie: I sing to your female protagonists and worthy male counterparts.