Movie Review: 'Whip It' Scores for Drew Barrymore

Women's roller derby isn't exactly covered by Title IX. It's more of a butt-kicking, third-wave-feminist statement—an excuse to use Manic Panic and kohl eyeliner—than a bona fide sport. But Whip It is a textbook sports movie, straight out of the old spiralbound playbook. It's got classic sports-movie moments: blister bandaging, bleary-eyed practices, beer-dampened stadiums, postgame pitchers. It boasts an endearingly ragtag lineup: the Elusive Third Wilson Brother (Andrew) as the head coach, first-time director Drew Barrymore doing double duty as a team player, peroxide-rinsed Jimmy Fallon as a sports announcer, and fresh-faced Ellen Page as the skating star. And people might actually go see it: the trades call its box-office prospects "zippy" (Variety) and say it "should perform exceptionally well" (The Hollywood Reporter). A commercially viable, well-acted, mainstream, interesting girls' sports movie—it's about time. Now, how about a chest bump? (Story continued below...)

If you want to know how rare this is, flip through the geekily comprehensive Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: The 100 Greatest Sports Films of All Time, released this month. Of the 100 top films—so determined by the strength of characters and story; the authenticity of sports scenes (someone has to be "sweating or bleeding or running," coauthor Glen Macnow says); the repeat "watchability" of a movie—you can count on one hand the number that center on women. It's not because women's sports movies are inherently subpar, explains Macnow, a sports columnist and radio host in Philadelphia. It's because there aren't that many to choose from. "Traditionally, sports have been the domain of men—professionally, in college, and down to the youth level. It's really been in the last 25 years that more and more young women—girls into young women into women—have found their way into sports," he says. "As women more and more become part of the sports fabric, you're going to find more and more movies about women in sports."

Maybe. Or maybe there are few great women's sports movies because filmmakers stick to the polar extremes: if it's not The Longshots(ick), then it's Million Dollar Baby(pass the uppers). Not to jab at Clint Eastwood's dark masterpiece. Million Dollar Baby stands alone as a triumph of sports movies, let alone girlie ones. It's one of the most decorated, with 2005 Oscars for best picture, best director, best actress, and best supporting actor. It made more than $100 million at the box office, enough to land it the No. 6 spot on the list of all-time sports-drama earners, the highest rank for a movie about a woman athlete.

But Million Dollar Babyis an outlier in every way—and in terms of re-watchability, it's not exactly Rocky. As more of a male-female buddy movie, it didn't do much to chip away at that familiar unstated precept, the same one that hampers viewership of WNBA games: even if they're good, girls' sports movies are seen as sports movies for girls, while a male-stacked movie like Hoosiers can be a gender-neutral classic. The fact is, a movie about young female athletes can be great and go unseen; a movie about young male athletes can be cretinous and make $100 million. The New York Times called actress Michelle Rodriguez's lead performance in Girlfight, another female boxing movie, reminiscent of "Brando in his smoldering prime." And the leagues by which the surfing movie Blue Crushexceeds The Waterboycan't be conveyed in the finite space of this story. But the Adam Sandler starrer (featurized from an old SNL skit about an all-thumbs canteen boy who becomes a star tackle) made four times the money Blue Crush did, and 100 times the money Girlfight made. With a $161.5 million gross, Sandler's movie is the box-office-winningest sports film of all time.

That's why Whip It is so exciting. With any luck, it won't be dismissed like Blue Crush or the great Bend It Like Beckham as a bubblegum PSA for Title IX. It's relatable for both boys and girls (ooh! the brutality!), it's well acted, it's thrilling to watch, and it's one of the best directorial debuts of the year. Most important, it's the kind of movie that will live forever on DVD (or at least TBS). Let's hope Whip It's success is the beginning of a new Hollywood genre. A movie this adventuresome shouldn't just skate by.