Jammers score. Blockers block. And pivots… well, they sort of block too. If you’re feeling really saucy, you could always whip it. Make sense? If it does, you’re obviously a fan of that oestrogen-infused, hot-wheeled American pastime known as roller derby.
If not, fear not. Drew Barrymore and co are here to educate. Thrashing round a circuit track sporting miniskirts, tattoos and a fair few cross-me-and-die expressions, the gals in Whip It are championing girl power and attitude galore.
What’s it all in aid of? Well, it starts with a girl. Her name’s Bliss (Ellen Page). She’s feeling anything but – “Just defective, I guess.” Seventeen-years-old and her mother’s very own living doll, Bliss wants nothing more than to break free from the beauty pageants and concoct her own flavour of fun.
Which is when she happens upon roller derby. Pledging thrills, spills and frills; it’s everything that has been missing from Bliss’ life. So she secretly joins the ‘Hurl Scouts’ team and becomes brazen alter ego Babe Ruthless. But what will mummy dearest think?
Based on the novel Derby Girl by ex-roller athlete Shauna Cross, Whip It is the directorial debut of one Drew Barrymore. Uh-oh, schmaltz alert! But… wait. Despite having brightened up her fair share of blinding, Prozac-happy rom-coms, this once-rebel-without-a-cause does an admirable job of stripping back the gloss to forge something that ebbs with a cool, authentic indie vibe.
With its teen torment, carefully crafted romance, and Amazonian action heroines, Barrymore’s adaptation adeptly channels the spirit of the sport itself. Rough but heartfelt, her film boasts an edgy ’70s zeal – from no-fuss visuals to a head-banging soundtrack, which features the rockin’ likes of Tilly and the Wall, .38 Special and Goose.
The restrained approach is both a blessing and a curse. An empyrean underwater clinch, a cornfield romp and a moment of heartbreaking, well, heartbreak are all neatly handled. Here, Barrymore isn’t afraid to let these mostly wordless scenes play through images and music.
But when it comes to the sport itself, usually a bombastic blend of genuine athleticism and high camp, she tends to keep the lioness caged. Her biggest frivolity ends up being the unveiling of the circuit track, in which a blackout gives way to a glittering, suspended roller-skate.
At its most basic, Whip It is the story of a girl searching for her identity. Which, naturally, factors in the well-heeled drama of a mother-versus-daughter mêlée. But this threadbare lynchpin is given fresh legs by the combined thesp power of Marcia Gay Harden and teen queen Ellen Page. Harden, as ever, is a force to be reckoned with. Brittle and cold, yet loving and desperate, her interactions with Page’s likeable indie chick afford Whip It its strongest asset.
The addition of Juliette Lewis as bitch-on-wheels Iron Maven is also a masterstroke, though it’s frustrating that her character is kept on a PG leash, reducing her to a sideways snark that lacks the requisite bite.
In the cluttered sports movie sub-genre, it would be easy to diminish Whip It to Bring It On with balls (there’s even a similar bloody-faced ‘Is it bad?’ moment). But where the latter embraced saccharine dairy products (and there’s nothing wrong with that), Whip It establishes itself as a restless nomad with fire in its belly.
Anticipation: Roller-skates still exist? And they’re still cool? Wow! 3
Enjoyment: A killer soundtrack and a sassy, game cast make for a fun-filled roller-ride. 4
In Retrospect: A restrained but accomplished debut from Barrymore, who emerges with minimal bruising. 4