by Siobhan Synnot, published on April 6, 2010|
(This article was first published in The Scotland On Sunday on April 04, 2010)
For her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore has opted for a movie with much of the sunny subversive benevolence of her screen personality.
This alone makes Whip It look downright radical, given that movies are more accustomed to presenting teenage girls as anodyne fembots (Confessions Of A Teenage Drama Queen), Lady Gaga burlesques (St Trinian's), or gothic obsessives scooped up by an unsuitable guy who is way too old (Twilight).
Whip It is set in a more diverse universe, and not just because it is a roller derby comedy. Barrymore has even managed to persuade Juno's Ellen Page to forsake her ironic eyerolling performances of recent films to play the less precocious but more persuasive Bliss Cavendar, a tomboy dying to escape her small Texas hometown where her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) grooms her for beauty pageants.
On a trip to Austin, she has her first encounter with women who have more on their mind than Elnett when some rowdy rollerskaters swing through a shop, leaving flyers in their wake. From the moment she sees her first female roller derby, she's hooked.
The film has some fun with the roller girls' nom de skates such as Jaba the Slut, Rosa Sparks and Barrymore's accident-prone Smashley Simpson. "I just wanted to tell you guys, you're my new heroes, " gushes Bliss to Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig). "Well, put some skates on and be your own hero," she's told briskly. Hiding the fact she's underage, Bliss finds her old Barbie skates and at a open audition demonstrates enough speed and grace to land a place in the Hurl Scouts, the worst team in the league.
Whip It is such a low-key, unpretentious picture that it may not get the credit it deserves for frequently skating close to cliché before delivering an unexpected elbow in the ribs. The women of Whip It are smart and accomplished but they don't have to look like Megan Fox or Amanda Seyfried to be worth caring about. In fact, it's the freckled, unconventional-looking Alia Shawkat who gives the film's best performance as Bliss's best friend, Pash.
Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) may be Bliss's rival on the skate circuit, but she's ultra-competitive rather than being a one-dimensional stone-hearted villain. When Bliss falls for a boy (Landon Pigg), he neither asks her to give up the roller derby for him, nor has to save her. It's almost as if this movie thinks that women should have something to do other than worry about boys for a couple of hours. Even Bliss's pageant mum is more nuanced than she strictly needs to be, with a day job as a postie in a vile uniform that offers one more reason why she adores the frocks and frills of the beauty circuit.
As a director, Barrymore equips us with enough information to understand who is winning and losing during the derbys, but she knows that the real focus is not the matches but the locker room and the after-parties, where Bliss's new life blossoms. Barrymore also has smart instincts regarding her very different performers: to play the Scouts' long-suffering coach, she even finds a Wilson brother (Andrew, brother of Luke and Owen) who can act.
Gutsy, goofy and exuberant, this is a charmer that doesn't underestimate its characters, or its audience. For movie-goers looking for fun this Easter, it's the best thing on eight wheels.
On general release from Wednesday.
Rating: 4 out of 5