– Summary –
Director : Drew Barrymore
Cast : Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Kirsten Wiig, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, Marcia Gay Harden, Landon Pigg, Daniel Stern.
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: When a young teenager rebels against her mother and joins an underground Roller Derby competition, she must learn to juggle her school and home responsibilities with the demands of a fast-paced, often violently aggressive sport.
Review : Fun, well directed and well acted debut from Barrymore behind (and in front of) the camera, Whip It manages to straddle the fine line between parody, angst-ridden woe-is-me trip, and outright action carnage.
Does anybody in Australia actually know what Roller Derby is? Hands up if you do. Okay, I don’t see many hands. That’s fine, because the perfect introduction to the “sport” of Roller Derby is here for you. It’s called Whip It, and it’s the bubbly debut directorial performance of Drew Barrymore. Starring Ellen Page, as well as a number of kinda-sorta-familiar faces dotted throughout, Whip It is a delightfully sporty romp that crosses teen-romance (a la Almost Famous) and a poor mans Dodgeball. With elements of teen-romance, bloody all-girl roller-skating violence, and a small dose of genuine heart at the centre, I have to admit to enjoying Whip It much more than I thought I would.
Ellen Page, known to most audiences as that chick from Juno, plays Bliss Cavendar, a young girl whose overbearing mother and inability to determine the course of he life gradually cause her to rebel and join a local roller derby competition. Alongside Drew Barrymore’s as the aptly named Smashley Simpson (their names are anger management psycho fodder for sure), Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, New Zealand’s Zoë Bell (one of the major reasons Tarantino’s Death Proof was so cool) as Bloody Holly, and the always mangy Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven (Iron Maiden, gettit?), Page holds her own as the smash-em’ sock-em’ attitude of the roller derby competition heats up. Page’s central conceit is to rebel against her mother (a wonderful Marcia Gay Harden), who seems more intent in putting her into the stifling world of debutantes and beauty pageants. The film never condescends to become trite with their relationship, which feels natural and believable. Both Page and Harden have a natural chemistry together, and director Barrymore does well in this regard. As the core of the film, this is Whip Its main strength. The more action-oriented segments of the film, and there are a few, are both gregariously shot and thankfully lacking in the modern penchant for shaky-cam frenetics. Bliss’s antagonism with chief rival Iron Maven is the secondary storyline (for me) in Whip It, and while they both seem to do more talking than any real action, Barrymore’s sensitive handling of this modern free-women’s sport and it’s male-parallel chest thumping is great to watch.
Bliss also becomes involved with a young musician (Landon Pigg) who steals, then breaks, her heart. Page channels her inner Juno again with much charm, her portrayal of the emotionally searching Bliss a delicate balance of wide-eyed innocence and subtle, quiet, inner strength. While the marketing department tried to highlight this film as an action-fest, the film doesn’t solely rely on the action to get it’s point across: in fact, I’d go so far as to say the action of the roller derby is less important than the character development going on to the side. While not essentially a chick flick, Drew Barrymore carves a chick flick ethos into this potentially action-heavy screenplay, ensuring it remains character driven first, stylish cool stuff second. Barrymore is no Michael Bay, and yet her ability to handle action is to be applauded: perhaps a skill picked up in those various Charlie’s Angels films?
If I have a lot to say that’s good about Whip It, where then does the film falter? Truthfully, the ancillary characters aren’t really that important, and as much as I hate to say it, the other roller teams Bliss’s Hurl Scouts go up against don’t get much development. They’re there to allow Bliss’s story to develop, though her friendship with the older and more mature team-mates. If anything, it’s the predominant action scenes that aren’t as strong as the more character driven ones, which, considering my penchant for action over story, I found quite refreshing. Acting wise, almost everyone does a bang up job, especially Page (who is rapidly thwarting my efforts to hate her somewhat angsty, modern-teen style) and Harden. Daniel Stern is the typically protective, yet distant, father figure for Bliss, and his moments are the chucklers of Whip It. Landon Pigg also provides a very Almost Famous feel to his role of Oliver, the teen musician whose charm Bliss falls hard for. Overall, the quality of acting in this film is great.
Whip It was a brightly directed, snappy anti-mainstream film that hits all the right post-modern feminist points: yet it’s accessible to everybody including men, most of whom would see this as an excuse to watch hot chicks beat the snot out of each other on skates. You’d be disappointed if you went into this expecting outright carnage, so blokey-blokes can probably skip it. For those of you wanting a great little storyline and “you can do anything” mantra spread out between sweaty roller-skating action, told with a strong female ethic, Whip It is for you. It’s no world beater, but it is a great film.