Whip It is such a great dynamic title for a film. Roller derby – with its punning names, colourful costumes and the opportunity to see pretty girls on rollerskates beating each other up – is a great subject matter. And Drew Barrymore, an actress who seems a whole lotta fun, making her directorial debut with said film featuring a mostly-female cast seems a great idea. Shame then, that Whip It doesn’t quite capitalise on all the potential greats I’ve listed.
Despite the prospect of roller derby carnage, Whip It turns out to be a fairly generic indie coming-of-age movie. Ellen Page reprises her role as Juno – sorry takes on the role of Bliss Cavendar (see, she even has the indie-film requisite of idiosyncratic name), small-town girl with big-time ambitions to be the next roller derby star. This doesn’t tally with mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) ambitions for her to be the next beauty pageant queen, nor with queen bee skater Iron Maven’s (Juliette Lewis) ambitions to retain top-of-the-league status. The next 100 minutes will see Bliss discover love, life and herself in true indie-movie style, with lots of quirky moments, acoustic-sounding songs and wistfully-framed cinematography along the way (the end shot is so indie it hurts… actually hurts, somewhere in the gut, I think).
In truth, Page’s performance is solid, un-showy and most importantly, believable. Far less irritating than the ever-quipping Juno, it anchors the film in reality– sometimes a little too much when you want Whip It to take off into the outlandish fishnet, fake eyelash and fisticuff-filled world of roller derby. Marcia Gay Harden, one-time winner of an Oscar, is a perennial feature of those ‘Whatever happened to…’ lists but on the grounds of this performance, she fully deserves to be back with a bang. Her portrayal of Brooke Cavendar is nicely-nuanced and she resists the urge to play the character more sympathetically. I enjoyed Juliette Lewis’ panto-turn as the villain of the piece and there’s sterling support from Arrested Development’s Alia Shawcat as Brooke’s bessie Pash (see, another weird name) and Kristen Wiig, RnB star Eve and Drew Barrymore herself as Brooke’s roller derby pals. Such is Barrymore’s innate watchability that you can’t help but want more screen-time of her brawltastic character, Smashley Simpson.
Whip It is a move from roller derby that gives the skater a burst of extra speed and to be honest, the film could do one. It’s never especially funny, or especially dramatic, but that means it’s not especially bad either. The whole thing has a certain charm that makes it impossible to dislike but for a film purportedly about rollerskating, it could have done with a lot more of it as its finest, funnest and most exciting moments come courtesy of the roller derby track.
During the credits, we get some deleted scenes and bloopers that show the cast having a ball – true to Barrymore form, it looked really fun to make. Shame a bit more of that freewheeling fun didn’t translate itself to the finished product.