by Sheila Johnston, published on Monday, April 5, 2010 - 07:04|
Whip It is not about nefarious S&M practices, nor the art of patisserie, nor even dog racing - although it has trace elements of all of the above. Instead, Drew Barrymore's sweet and swaggering maiden trip as director is a confection set in the rough-and-tumble world of female roller derbies, at which rival teams hurtle around a curved rink like bats out of hell, inflicting grievous bodily harm on each other in the process. For those unversed in the finer points of the sport, the film helpfully explains these near the beginning. Basically, though, it involves "hot girls in fishnets beating the crap out of each other," a spectacle which, whatever your gender and sexual orientation, you may well find curiously appealing.
Ellen Page plays a slightly nerdier version of the old-soul teenage misfit which earned her an Oscar nomination for Juno two years ago. Marooned in a sleepy truck-stop town in Texas, she drifts between high school, a dead-end part-time job at the Oink Joint, a diner famed (or infamous) for its massive burgers, and the pageant circuit which she's being pushed through, kicking and screaming, by her ex-beauty queen mom. Until, in Austin one day, she crosses the path of a claque of tattooed, punky, fabulously cool derby girls, is instantly smitten and gets taken on by the Hurl Scouts, a scrappy team of losers ("We came second!" they chant victoriously after matches, no matter that there are only two teams in the contest). Surprise, Page promptly proves a natural at the sport. Will she transform the fortunes of the Hurl Scouts?
"It's about a girl finding out who she is, going after what she believes in and bringing out the best in herself," is how Barrymore (pictured right) snoozily describes her film. Well, yes, Whip It - based on an autobiographical novel by Shauna Cross - is a shamelessly formulaic, seen-it-all-before tale of female empowerment and underdogs made good. But there's more to it than that. The numerous subplots don't roll out according to the dreary dictates of Screenwriting 101, and the broad array of secondary characters are vividly non-stereotypical (as one would expect in a film by an actress-director, the performances universally generous and winning).
Page has two very good scenes, with her father, a so-laid-back-he's-horizontal Daniel Stern, and her mother, Marcia Gay Harden, who's not, as it turns out, just another neurotic menopausal Southern belle. There's a slightly desultory romance - which also doesn't end quite as expected - with a musician, played by the singer-songwriter Landon Pigg, which is a cue for an extensive indie-rock soundtrack: Whip It's title actually comes from the 1980 single by Devo. (Austin hero Daniel Johnston is an ethereal presence, though, alas, you don't see too much of the local music scene on account of the fact that the film was shot in Michigan).
But the main fun comes from the roller derbies and the comic byplay between the skaters, who all have punning badass nicknames: Eva Destruction, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig, commanding), Iron Maven (a terrific Juliette Lewis), Bloody Holly (Zoe Ball, the real-life stuntwoman who all but stole Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof) - you get the general drift. Barrymore herself takes a supporting role as the accident-prone Smashley Simpson and Page's character, whose real name is Bliss, assumes the nom de patin of Babe Ruthless, a choice which instantly wins over her sports-mad dad.
The skating scenes are roistering and plausible: they incorporate real derby girls, while Page herself proves pretty nippy on wheels and seems to work mostly without a stunt double. And the obligatory out-takes over the end credits - for once worth sticking around to see - suggest that one and all had the time of their lives making it.