Curating Mood: Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009)

A few days ago collective shock hit Twitter regarding SZA’s “Drew Barrymore” video. The music video features—you guessed it—a short cameo from the eponymous former angel herself.

It got me thinking about Drew, the superstar queen we all take for granted and possibly the kindest looking person in history.

Do y’all remember when Drew Barrymore jumped off the romcom circuit and made girl-punk coming of age story about roller derby? I make it sound like a bigger jump than it really is; the same year Whip It was released she starred in a Grey Gardens adaptation with Jessica Lange that I somehow haven’t seen yet. But still, the little sister from E.T. made a movie about female roller derby, and it’s pretty fucking good.

Whip It’s successes (and failures) I largely credit to its casting.

Give me Ellen Page in anything and I’m there. Her best friend is also Alia Shawkat? Hell yeah that’s my best friend too. The derby team itself is composed of Barrymore herself, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, and Eve. There are also two deaf sisters (one of whom is played by a real-life derby coach!) called The Manson Sisters. Juliette Lewis is here too as an opposing derby gal named Iron Maven, which is one of my favorite things ever.

Suffice to say, the girls all hold this film together. The guys kinda fade into the background and grog down the movie, but isn’t that to be expected in a movie about capital-G Grl Power? Oh, Jimmy Fallon’s here too. Your mileage with him really depends on your taste. I personally can’t palate the man, but he seems to be doing his usual shtick so to each their own. I’ll take Marcia Gay Harden as a pageant mother coming to appreciate her brash daughter.

It should be noted, though, that this movie does have its attributes beyond a stellar cast. The direction is consistently clean throughout, with the derby sequences boasting some excellent camerawork and editing.

There’s a great pool sequence too, set to a swoony track by Jens Lekman. It’s a really remarkable string arrangement: I believe a harp under a violin set against a guitar riff? Brilliant. And the lyrics are nuts.

The soundtrack is (shockingly) another of the film’s strengths. It’s probably the best part of this film, in my opinion.

Barrymore struggles to fully realize her narrative in Whip It, and it shows in the uneven pacing of the film. But she does key directly into the emotions she’s trying to express, and has a sense for the perfect track to amplify the mood in any given scene.

And that’s what the best cuts do in movies. A perfect song provides that last touch to a scene in order to create something really immersive. You go beyond being simply lost in a feeling, you learn, internally the feeling of being in a place at a given time. Giving this a listen through, years removed from the movie, I still know all the scenes and all the feelings each song is tied to.

Peaches’ “Boys Wanna Be Her” still puts me into the derby, same with The Ettes’ “Crown of Age” and Tilly and the Wall’s “Pot Kettle Black.” It’s a consistent and specific girl punk sound and it makes me wanna give myself a name like Babe Ruthless and put on some skates, even though I’m an atrocious skater.

“Jolene” gives us that great diner dance scene between Page and Shawkat. A scene that’s appeared in my life at similar low-wage to similar established classics countless times. And my favorite cut from the film, “Doing It Right” by The Go! Team, encapsulates everything about this mediocre derby team I love.

I don’t how many people saw this when it came out. It holds up surprisingly well in our ever-increasingly feminist media landscape, so I recommend giving it a watch if you haven’t.

Of the many criticisms this film receives, I agree the film could be more diverse in its representation of the outsider culture that makes up roller derby. But it does what it does, set a girl’s coming of age in this environment, really well.

It’s an uneven film, for sure, but Barrymore’s point in making this film was to give some spotlight to the weird and the unsuccessful—especially the weird and unsuccessful girls. So here’s a little mixtape for the #2s in life.

Catch Curating Mood every Friday on The Indie Sound. You can also catch Curating Mood’s first feature on The Bling Ring.

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