Little known fact about me is that I grew up on roller derby. The sport has always interested me as it is a mix of the physical aspects of hockey, track racing and the theatrics of professional wrestling. A friend of my father’s was a professional roller derby skater (as well as a charter bus driver) and he would sometimes get us tickets to go and see roller derby matches. Watching men skate was always fun but the real thrill always came when the women’s teams would take the track. The ladies always glammed it up and played up their sex appeal to rile up the crowd, something that was more than likely lost on my adolescent self but I certainly got the feel that the ladies were the main draw and loved when they were on the track. Sadly roller derby went out of style and became more of an underground event and I lost touch with it. Leave it to Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore, two personal favorites of mine, to bring my long forgotten infatuation with the sport back into my life with the comedy “Whip It”.
“Whip It” focuses on the life of high school student Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). Bliss leads an awkward existence, her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) pushes her to compete in beauty pageants while Bliss rebels and does everything in her power to subvert her mother’s wishes. It all plays out like many other mother – daughter relationships that have hit film, it all takes a turn though when Bliss discovers the existence of roller derby and is convinced to try out for the league by skater Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and of course makes the team.
Ellen Page continues to prove that she is quite the talented little actress. Some may argue that she is playing the same character she portrayed in the critical darling, Juno, and to an extent it is somewhat true. I have, in recent weeks, been quite critical of her Juno co-star, Michael Cera, for very much the same issue. However Page continues to progress as an actress, giving flashes of something more underneath her witty, rebellious demeanor. Each film she does she presents a new angle and some added depth to her characters, making them feel more real in the process.
Enough gushing over Ellen Page though because she is certainly not the only good thing about this film. Through and through, “Whip It” is filled with fine performances. All the members of the Hurl Scouts (Bliss’s derby team), led by Drew Barrymore (both on-screen and off) deliver plenty of laughs but the best moments in the film (outside of Page) come from a quintet of individuals. Those being, Daniel Stern, Alia Shawkat, Andrew Wilson, Juliette Lewis and Jimmy Fallon all of whom deliver more than their fair share of laughs when they get screen time.
With “Whip It”, Drew Barrymore, in her feature film directorial debut, delivers a charming little film despite its rather generic themes. To steal an overused sports film cliché, “Whip It” has heart and that is really what drives it from being just an ordinary film. The relationship between Bliss and her mother is a strong focal point and like many sports movies, there is a lesson to be learned within but Barrymore does a fine job balancing the cliché riddled themes with heartfelt laughs and “Whip It” ends up being far better than it has any right to be.
The film is not going to shatter anyone’s expectations of what a sports film can, or should be but it will entertain you for its nearly two hour run time and sometimes that is all a movie needs to do.
4 out of 5