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The Guardian You review - Whip It
Did Drew Barrymore's roller derby romp rock your world, or did it just make you want to put on your skates and leave? by Ben Child, published on Monday, April 12, 2010 - 15.03 BST
The critics are largely thrilled by Drew Barrymore's gentle directing debut, an adaptation of Shauna Cross's breezy 2007 novel about a teenager trying to escape her life of small-town ennui by joining a local roller derby league. Whip It stars Juno's Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, aka Babe Ruthless, who discovers a talent for zipping round a rollerskating rink populated by badass women with monikers such as Eva Destruction, Bloody Holly and Jabba the Slut.
Bliss's ability to send opponents flying while staying on her own two skates helps transform a motley crew of likable losers, The Hurl Scouts, into championship contenders, and she's soon enjoying the sort of free-living, hard-partying lifestyle she always dreamed of, even striking up a fledgling relationship with a young wannabe rock star. Unfortunately, her conservative-minded mom, for whom twee and starchy beauty pageants are the perfect activities for a young lady of Bliss's age, knows nothing of her daughter's new-found career. The stage is therefore set for a Bend It Like Beckham/School of Rock-style confrontation when the truth is finally unveiled.
"The movie is a coming-together of two free spirits, Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page, and while it may not reflect the kind of female empowerment Gloria Steinem had in mind, it has guts, charm, and a black-and-blue sweetness," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Yes, it faithfully follows the age-old structure of the sports movie, but what a sport, and how much the Derby girls love it."
"There's nothing original about [Whip It]" writes Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph. "But although it's handled competently rather than with breathtaking élan, it's almost impossible to dislike: a romping, soundtrack-heavy version of Rollerball (1975) for the indie-rock set, it's enjoyable, undemanding fare better suited to theatres than to living rooms."
"Barrymore, among the most consistently admirable women in showbiz, can proudly add a Guides badge for Meritorious Directing to her many other achievements," writes Empire's Kim Newman. "Excellent emo chick coming-of-age drama plus broads in fetish gear battering each other on roller skates frankly, a film that offers something for everyone."
"Barrymore makes her directing debut with a join-the-dots sports outing that's so brightly played and so essentially sweet-natured that its manifest cliches come up smelling of fresh paint," writes our own Xan Brooks. "She takes enough detours along the way to make us care about her contestants and believe in the gaudy, clattering microverse they patrol."
As a monument to girl power, Whip It struck me as infinitely less po-faced and sentimental than Page's earlier film, Juno. Where that movie was all precocious witticisms and worthy examinations of personal morality played out against a musical backdrop of hokey indie awfulness, Barrymore's film burns with an unsentimental fire emanating from its B-movie subject matter, a rocking soundtrack and pitch-perfect performances from castmembers who are clearly having far more fun than they're used to.
Kristen Wiig, who plays Bliss's team-mate and surrogate mother Maggie Mayhem, has always been a brilliant, if one-dimensional comedic actor: here she adds some heart and soul to the uncanny comic timing. Juliette Lewis is all grimy attitude and slinky rock-chick insouciance as Iron Maven, the leader of a rival skate team, while Andrew Wilson exhibits enough off-kilter charm as the Hurl Scouts' earnest coach to have us wondering why we see so much less of him on the big screen than brothers Owen and Luke.
Marcia Gay-Harden, always good value in matriarchal roles, here gives us a mother who's hard to dislike, despite her prim determination and ridiculously old-fashioned outlook. Finally, Page herself proves she has the subtle understanding of character to play a teenager who couldn't be further from Juno MacGuff.
Did you manage to catch Whip It at the weekend? Do you agree that this one raced around the track like an oestrogen-fuelled lightning bolt? Or did Barrymore and co ultimately lose their footing and spin out of contention?