Whip It is the directorial debut of Hollywood’s former rom com go-to girl, Drew Barrymore. Written by Shauna Cross and based on her novel Derby Girl, there’s clearly a feminist agenda woven throughout, but it’s never crammed down our throats like some critics would have you believe. The ‘girl power on roller-skates’ deal takes a sort-of backseat to the rest of the film which deals with a fraying mother-daughter relationship and the problems with coming of age in Nowheresville, USA.
Ellen Page (Juno, Hard Candy) takes the role of Whip It’s lead character, Bliss Cavendar. Tired of the small town drudgery and outwardly rebelling against her pushy mother, Bliss attends a roller derby match and inevitably ends up going back for tryouts. If it all sounds very linear, that’s because it is. Whip It follows the same well-beaten and predictable path as almost every other sports movie ever made.
Moving from point-to-point like a filmic dot-to-dot puzzle, it does leave you wanting for something a little bit different. However, while it might not stray away from the tropes and principles that make the genre what it is, it does bring along some respectable attributes of its own. Charming and almost carefree for the duration, the film picks its moments to delve into heavier subjects which the cast handle beautifully, particularly Page and Marcia Gay-Harden who plays the role of Bliss’ mother.
Bliss foreseeably finds herself a part of the Hurl Scouts -the whipping girls of this particular roller derby league. Her teammates quickly become a surrogate family and it’s in them that Bliss seeks refuge when a boy causes her to fall out with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat, who played Maebe in Arrested Development). The other Scouts are the usual motley crew -single mothers (Kristen Wiig, with another decent performance), doe-eyed hippies (Drew Barrymore herself) and put-upon coach Razor (Andrew Wilson).
The Hurl Scouts climb up the roller derby league as Bliss finds herself in the sport. It’s not overly-sentimental, nor is it quite Rocky on roller-skates. The world of roller derby itself feels a bit under-explored, but Barrymore has handled the rest of the film well on her debut behind the camera. We can surely look forward to more from her and from Ellen Page, who is as excellent here as she was in Juno and Hard Candy.