Maryland Roller Derby Team Rallies For 'Whip It'

Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It scored big with one demographic over the weekend: roller derby fans. One theater in Maryland was packed with real-life derby girls the Mason-Dixon Vixens.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The biggest movie this weekend was "Zombieland." It took in about $25 million at the box office. Drew Barrymore's directorial debut "Whip It" made a fraction of that, but the film was killer with one demographic: roller derby fans. The movie follows Ellen Page as she becomes a member of an Austin, Texas team, the Hurl Scouts, and that brought real roller derby teams out in force.

Zoe Chace caught up with the Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens at the theater.

ZOE CHACE: Robin Weegan(ph) and Amanda Kerstetter(ph) are accosting people in line on their way to see "Whip It" at the Valley Mill Mall in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Unidentified Woman: Hey guys, do you like chicks and men who wear fishnets? You should come see us.

Unidentified Man: Sure.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

CHACE: They're passing out flyers, hoping the movie drums up local interest in their team. Amanda's in a tutu. Robin's in rainbow tights. They're explaining roller derby to a group of guys who have never heard of it. They informed the guys that roller derby's all lady.

Unidentified Woman: Rolling around, beating each other up. It's good entertainment.

CHACE: Players race around a track on roller skates and occasionally knock each other out of the way to get ahead. They dress campy, a ton of makeup and sassy pantyhose, and they use pseudonyms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: I can't say Amanda's over the radio, but Robin goes by Switchbladie(ph). Sydney Harbaugh(ph) goes by Liz Dexic.

Ms. SYDNEY HARBAUGH (Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens): Mostly we get a new audience because people still - we've been here two years and people still don't know that there's derby in Hagerstown.

CHACE: There's about 20 derby girls here to see the movie tonight. Liz Dexic heads to the box office. She's got a reflector roller skate the size of an apple hanging around her neck.

Ms. HARBAUGH: Can I use a card? Okay. Can I get a ticket for "Whip It?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: The theater feels like it's chockfull of Mason-Dixon Vixens, including captain Fanny Harmher.

Ms. KATIE LEATHERMAN (Captain, Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens): I do feel bad for the other people that just came to watch the movie. We've kind of taken over and I really don't think they're going to get any peace. Well, they'll see what roller derby is really about.

CHACE: Not sure if the team is winning any hearts and minds here. Poli G. Gammy's throwing popcorn at Liz Dexic.

POLI G. GAMMY: No necking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: And even after it starts, Cykosis and Fanny Harmher can't stop themselves from debating the film's accuracy.

Ms. AMBER MURRAY (Mason-Dixon Roller Vixens): Well, you have to boil them outside and fit it around your teeth so you couldn't (unintelligible).

Ms. LEATHERMAN: …because Shannon forgot her mouth guard one time and she wore mine.

Ms. MURRAY: That's gross.

CHACE: By day Fanny Harmher is Ms. Leatherman a first-grade teacher. Cykosis is Amber Murray, a stay-at-home mom with three kids.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHACE: But they cheer like a class of eight-graders at the end. They totally love the movie. Really, they love everything that has to do with roller derby. And for Cykosis, it's been transformative.

Ms. MURRAY: I was a very shy person. Just very, you know, I've been home for 13 years with my kids. I have a 13-year-old son, so I was real sheltered and real at home, and I found this group of girls that I always had the voice down in me. It just was brought out, and hallelujah for that because, you know, it's time. It's time.

CHACE: It's time for roller derby to take off in Hagerstown. Cykosis thinks they'll be a "Whip It" bump at the team's next home bout on November 8th.

For NPR News, I'm Zoe Chace.

(Soundbite of song, "Lollipop")

CHORDETTES (Band): (Singing) Lollipop, lollipop, lolli, lollipop, lollipop…

MONTAGNE: There are about 400 roller derby teams around the world. As for the cast members of "Whip It," they got their training in the rough and tumble sport from one of the L.A. Derby Doll. Her pseudonym is Axles of Evil, but here in Los Angeles she's better known to public radio listeners as host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for member station KPCC - that would be our own Alex Cohen.

(Soundbite of song, "Lollipop")

CHORDETTES: (Singing) Call my baby lollipop. Tell you why. His kiss is sweeter than an apple pie and when he does his shaky rockin' dance. Man, I haven't…

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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'Whip It': An Outsider In Motion, In Search Of A Clan

The Hurl Scouts roller derby team in 'Whip It'

Green Machine: Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page, center) finds a family of choice on the Hurl Scouts roller derby team. Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Pictures

Whip It

  • Director: Drew Barrymore
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Running Time: 111 minutes

Rated PG-13: Typical naughty teenage behavior

With: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Alia Shawkat, Juliette Lewis

With a title like Whip It, you might expect Drew Barrymore's directing debut to be a little risky (or a lot risque). That title, however, is as kinky as it gets: Like its maker, Whip It is bright, bouncy and winning, a genial celebration of roller derby and girl power that never hits too hard or delves too deep. Even the bruises — and there are quite a few — are more flattering than frightening.

A bubbly mash-up of sports drama and coming-of-age saga, the movie revels in cliches from both genres without sacrificing audience goodwill. Much of this is due to a tight, mostly female ensemble led by Juno star Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a disgruntled high-schooler in the tiny town of Bodeen, Texas. Already well on the way to becoming typecast as the punky teenage misfit, Page makes 17-year-old Bliss believably alienated, both from her pageant-happy mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her football-mad father (an excellent Daniel Stern). In Bodeen, the sexes are as segregated in their obsessions as in their opportunities.

Everything changes, however, when Bliss encounters the rock 'n' roll charm of two roller derby girls. Before you can say "jammer," she's headed for the Austin tryouts, Barbie skates and fake birth date in tow. Luckily the Hurl Scouts, runts of their league, can't afford to be picky, and Bliss — rechristened Babe Ruthless — is soon charging round the rink, throwing elbows and trying not to throw up her dinner. And as her teammates offer tips and tough love, Bliss is transformed: For the first time, her expression matches her name.

Filmed in Ann Arbor, Mich., from a watery screenplay by Shauna Cross (who based it on her semiautobiographical novel, Derby Girl), Whip It is untidily structured and disappointingly repetitive. (Endless scenes of girls racing around a circuit induce a special kind of vertigo, no matter how short the skirts or tight the shirts.) Authenticity is not even a goal: One body slam from bruisers like these and it's clear the fragile Bliss — a china doll in a sport crammed with Transformers — would be pummeled to pulp. (That said, the film is subtle enough to suggest that the fear in her mother's eyes has more to do with class than with violence.)

Ellen Page and Landon Pigg in 'Whip It' i i

Sweet Sounds Of Love: Like many another misfit, Bliss can't seem to resist the charms of the boy (Landon Pigg) in the band. Darren Michael/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Darren Michael/Warner Bros. Pictures
Ellen Page and Landon Pigg in 'Whip It'

Sweet Sounds Of Love: Like many another misfit, Bliss can't seem to resist the charms of the boy (Landon Pigg) in the band.

Darren Michael/Warner Bros. Pictures

None of this matters, however, in a film so endearingly goofy that it resolves conflict with a food fight. And as Bliss begins a tentative romance with a floppy-haired rock musician (Landon Pigg), learns to appreciate her best friend (an outstanding Alia Shawkat) and prepares for the championship game, the movie maintains an innocence as perky as its director. Not even Juliette Lewis — who brings to any project an aura of dissipation all her own — can sour the wholesomeness. Playing Bliss' archrival, Iron Maven, Lewis delivers a touching portrait of potential gone to seed and options recognized too late.

Enormously likable and sweetly unpretentious, Whip It coasts on a gently feminist vibe that's far less competitive than most high school dramas, where the sport is dating and boys are the prize. The movie might convince your tween daughter that unsafe roller skating is cool; unlike Juno, it won't convince her that unsafe sex is the same.

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