by Anne Wollenberg, published on August 24, 2010|
When did you last see a sports film about indie misfits? Lets face it: sports movies for teenagers are either weepy Disney underdog stories or badly-written rebel-goes-good tripe like (shudder) Stick It. Surely a whip-smart movie about teenage rebellion, mothers and daughters, small-town America, femininity, first love and cool rock chicks beating the crap out of each other, on rollerblades, can only exist on a riot grrrl Christmas list and/or in the mind of a man with a very strange fetish?
Except Drew Barrymore rolled in and adapted Shauna Crosss book, Derby Girl, a fictionalised account of her own roller derby experiences. Now, it might sound like theres an awful lot of issues crammed into Whip It and, with star billing for Ellen Page, it might also sound like teen angst by the numbers (on wheels). But its a rollicking, riotous, fun, fantastic ride and it carries off that combination of themes with a deft and light touch.
Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a small, dull Texas town. She goes to high school, where shes bullied by a pretty, popular girl who used to be her friend, and works in a fast food joint with a gigantic pig mounted on the roof. Glamorous stuff. Mum Brooke (Harden) is desperate for Bliss to be a beauty pageant queen, just like her. But while Bliss younger sister merrily vogues away and says she wants to be Miss America one day, Bliss isnt keen. And then she joins the Hurl Scouts: gum-chewing, wisecracking cool chicks with more tattoos and attitude than Bliss has ever seen in her life. Most teenagers like her, with a penchant for Doc Martins and a need to escape their pushy mums, get into writing or zine-making or they form bands or join drama groups or become groupies. They dont tend to take up violent contact sports. Roller derby is basically Formula 1 with people instead of cars, potentially more aptly summed up as Crunch It and/or Wince At It. Indie misfits dont take up sport, surely. But this sports not just for jocks.
Not that the film delves particularly deeply into the actual sport. However pivotal a plot device it may be, you get the feeling the movie may only be paying lip service to the actual workings of roller derby. We do get to see the Hurl Scouts train with coach Razor (Wilson), whos more than a little reminiscent of a young Jeff Bridges, and of course there are plenty of fast, exciting, wince-worthy derby scenes. But the essence of Whip It is really in the conflict. Between Bliss and her mother, who only wants whats best for her but may not have the right idea about what that actually means. Between who Bliss is a teenager who goes to school and who she wants to be. Having lied about her age to get into the derby league, she forms a new, sort-of-fake life for herself. Its not a million miles away from Jenny, Carey Mulligans role in An Education. Jenny wanted to be sophisticated or, to be more precise, she wanted to be French. She got an older boyfriend and escaped into an older persons world of jazz clubs and art galleries. Its the same for Bliss, except her boyfriend Oliver (Landon Pigg) plays in a band, and her new world is full of cool parties and roller derby meets, although there are bullies here too namely Iron Maven (Lewis), who is not impressed by the new kid on the roller scene.
We see Bliss trying on the costume of a new life, forming a new, older, cooler persona for herself. Roller Derby girls have the nicknames to match their attitude: Iron Maven, Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Bloody Holly, Eva Destruction. Bliss becomes Babe Ruthless, a girl whos everything she feels like shes not. Its not exactly a revelation for Ellen Page though thats not to say its not a good performance. Indeed, the only time when Whip It jars is when Barrymore opens her mouth. As Smashley Simpson, shes a little cringey. Its difficult not to wonder if she wasnt trying far too hard to seem like a Cool Roller Derby Chick. But her work behind the camera is excellent.
Whip It is so many films youve wanted to see. The one where the indie kid gets one-up on the mean girl. The one where she doesnt hand her heart to a sub-standard man and wait for him to deflate it and stuff it in the bin, but actually manages to stick up for herself. The one where the sort-of-weirdo gets a really cool hobby and kicks serious ass. The one where it turns out the way out of small-town life involves cool rock chicks beating the crap out of each other, on rollerblades. And the one where Barrymore directs her first film, and it really is as good as you hoped it would be. And then some.
EXTRAS (2 out of 5)
For such a first-rate film, the DVD extras are a bit of a letdown: just nine deleted scenes; and interviews with Barrymore, Page, Harden, Wiig, Lewis, Shawkat, Fallon, Stern, Eve, Andrew Wilson, Landon Piig, Cross, and roller derby trainer Alex Cohen.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5