Roller Derby might be one of the strangest sports ever to be put on film, having more of an underground, nostalgic appeal than a large fan-base, which might explain why Whip It was something of a disappointment at the US box office. Which is a real shame as the film – the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore – is a delight (and it does a pretty good job of explaining the sport too).
Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a misfit teen growing up in the backwater of Bodeen, Texas, who spends her time out of school either working at a diner with her best (and possibly only) friend Pash, or grudgingly taking part in beauty pageants at the insistence of her mother. Until that is she stumbles on the roller derby league taking place in nearby Austin, and ends up joining struggling team The Hurl Scouts.
The presence of Page in the lead role means it’s easy to make Juno on wheels comparisons and like that film there is an overabundance of hipster-ism, from an indie soundtrack with more songs than it really has room for and characters bonding over semi-obscure singers, to ironic clothing choices and even an unusual location for a sex scene. However, the big difference between the two is that while Juno was driven by clever snarkiness rather than heart, Whip It is entirely, sweetly sincere. It’s hard not to be charmed by the film even when some of the filming and scripting goes a bit wonky, in fact Whip It’s scrappy charm has Barrymore’s fingerprints all over it. She also does a great job in the supporting role of Bliss’ team-mate Smashley Simpson, a diminutive, but psychotically violent member of The Hurl Scouts (for which Barrymore seems to be channelling some of the spirit and mannerisms of Courtney Love). A major strength of the film is its casting, with so many of the roles perfectly filled, in particular Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development’s Maeby) as Bliss’ smart but equally unpopular friend Pash, Juliette Lewis playing up her bad-girl persona as rival team leader Iron Maven and most of all the two maternal figures in Bliss’ life, her teammate Maggie Mayhem, played by Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig, and her mother Brooke, played by Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, who infuses the role with a variety of mannerisms that are always compelling to watch.
Even though not particularly original as it ticks off most of the clichés of teen and sports movies, Whip It offers a lot to enjoy, even for those who aren’t fans of either genre, thanks to its well-drawn characters, amusing script, and most of all its excellent performances.