Although it emerged as a crowd-pleaser at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It is a more unconventional movie than one might expect.
Not only does its story of a small-town Texas girl named Bliss (Halifax native Ellen Page) who spurns the beauty pageant circuit to join a local roller derby team skate circles around sports-movie clichés, it also cuts its heroine’s disapproving mother (Marcia Gay Harden) a surprising amount of slack.
“That’s the love story,” explains Barrymore. “I wanted to surprise people, and have it not be about Bliss and some boy, but about a girl and her mother. I didn’t want (Harden) to be an archetypal villain.
“And I also didn’t want to do the typical thing with beauty pageants, which are always made fun of so cruelly in movies. I think that doing pageants could definitely be somebody’s choice in life, but not for Bliss, because that’s not who she is.
Who Bliss turns out to be — at least one night a week — is Babe Ruthless, her hard-driving, elbow throwing alter ego.
“Derby is an underground sport cropping up across the country,” says Barrymore, who also appears in the film as an unholy roller with the track handle Smashlee Simpson.
“The girls who do it aren’t doing it for money. They’re nurses and librarians by day, and then these tough derby chicks by night. They’re ‘finding their tribe,’ which is a huge thing for me in my life, and something I think that I was able to inject into Bliss’ character.”
As a director, Barrymore says that she was inspired by the films she watched as an ’80s baby, including Breaking Away and the works of the late John Hughes. “Those movies were so human,” she says. “There was tons of room for comedy, but also for interesting, realistic family dynamics. I thought that those directors were able to reach amazing emotional depths. Making Whip It, I wanted to go back to that time, and to avoid any sort of modern poppiness.”
That said, one of Whip It’s best features is the way it uses a very modern pop singer — the critically acclaimed Swedish crooner Jens Lekman — to underscore its most lyrical passages.
“We have four or five of his songs in the movie, and I actually flew him out to the editing room,” says Barrymore. “I completely fell in love with his music when we were making this movie.”