A story of an ex-beauty pageant contestant (Ellen Page) that leaves her crowns behind to find a hobby she actually enjoys. In Bodeen, Texas, an indie-rock loving misfit finds a way of dealing with her small-town misery after she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin.
Drew Barrymore’s feature directing debut, the good-natured Whip It, champions the discovery of inner strength through the love and support of your roller derby sisters. If the exuberant film isn’t quite as much fun as one expects it to be, that’s only because Barrymore is just as determined to land some insightful and unexpected dramatic punches as she is with the inherent physical comedy for which the sport is renowned.
The blood sport of roller derby dates back to the 30s and is currently enjoying a retro revival, and its impact as a small-town phenomenon is conveyed with a great deal of enthusiasm by Barrymore’s cast. Though from different social backgrounds, the girls of the Hurl Scouts make for a mean cross-section of sisterhood: mother-figure Maggie Mayhem (Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig), African-American toughie Rosa Sparks (pop singer Eve), muscle-bound Bloody Holly (real-life stuntperson Zoe Bell) and the ultimate wild-child Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself, hilariously channeling the insane personality of the average WWE wrestler).
Into this explosive mix of oestrogen and energy arrives Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a Bodeen, Texas native with an untapped rebellious streak, who doesn’t fit into her tightly-wound mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) world of beauty pageantry. After spotting a flyer that details life as a roller-derby chick, she drags her friend Pash (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) to regional try-outs and soon finds herself as the speedy 'Whip Girl’ Babe Ruthless, the Hurl Scouts latest star.
But there are tensions, of course: On the derby rink, the slyly conniving Iron Maven (a terrific Juliette Lewis) won’t relinquish her Roller Queen crown without a fight; Bliss encounters her own collision course at home, when her traditional mother and father (Daniel Stern) discover the details of their daughter’s double life; the local indie-rock lothario (Landon Pigg) proves a catch too good to be true; and friendships on and off the rink become strained. Can all be sorted out in time for Babe Ruthless to get to Austin for the State Championships..?
Strengthening her reputation as Hollywood’s cool teen du jour, Ellen Page effortlessly conveys the frustrations of a free-spirit shackled by unrealistic expectations. Though it enters the unfamiliar cinematic terrain of roller-derby, Whip It is certainly not a new story – the 'Misunderstood teen finds their own way but must cut the apron strings to really fly’ is one of the most oft-told tales of cinema. But teary scenes between Page and Harden and the familial chemistry created between them, Stern and little sister Shania (real-life daughter of Harden, Eulala Scheel) give it the dramatic potency required to lift it above teen-film clichés.
Ultimately, Barrymore almost proves too good a director for the material. With an eye for strong framing and a knack for finding the emotional core of a scene with her lens, Barrymore and her cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman (Wes Anderson’s favoured collaborator on all his films) paint the small town setting in subdued, autumnal, even borderline-colourless tones that enhance the dramatics but sometimes suck the fun out of the picture. It’s a minor complaint – suggesting that a film is too good-looking nowadays seems picky – but it does create an imbalance that tests the audience connection.
Whip It (so named after the competition move in which team-members join arms and slingshot their 'whip’ into a winning position) is everything it needs to be in all the right places – funny, moving and particularly rousing in the roller-derby action scenes. Its message of sororal unity and following your dream no matter what form it may take, is delivered with skill by a first-time filmmaker who has chosen her debut material well. That it is not a classic is by no means a disappointment.