Whip It

Director    Drew Barrymore
Starring    Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Landon Pigg
Release    2 OCT (US) 7 APR (UK)    Certificate 12A
3 stars


11th April 2010

Brace yourself for an education in jamming, whipping and blocking courtesy of Drew Barrymore and her fictional roller derby team. Essentially, roller derby is a sport for people who don't like sport; it's the anti-sport sport, attracting the girls who never got picked to be in the team and got sneered at by the jocks and cheerleaders. In other words it's the perfect set-up for a traditional underdog story.

The underdog in question is Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a misfit teen who hasn't yet figured herself out, but desperately wants to escape her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. Under pressure from her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss reluctantly competes in beauty pageants feeling like a fish out of water. Picking up a flyer for a roller derby bout changes Bliss' life.

Inside an abandoned warehouse she discovers a network of indies, emos, punks and drop-outs who convene to cheer on a group of sassy, aggressive women on rollerskates with more balls and more eyeliner than a truck full of Russell Brands. Awestruck, Bliss watches the theatrics of the bout as Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and co bash and bruise their way through a match.

[gallery]Inspired, Bliss digs out her old Barbie skates, and yep you guessed it, in true sports movie tradition, a montage of training thrills and spills follows as Bliss discovers she has a knack for speed on the track, but lacks the stomach to clobber her opponents in the true spirit of the game. But it ain't all plain skating for Bliss and her newly born rollergirl alter-ego Babe Ruthless. She is forced to live a double life, juggling pageants and training, telling one lie after another until eventually it all starts to unravel, leaving Bliss in a right old pickle.

Barrymore knows her way around a film set, and as the closing credits testify, her set was full of energy and fun, which translates onto the screen making for a breezy, ballsy romp. A feeling of familiarity and the lack of surprises in the narrative scarcely matters when the end product is so enjoyable.

The weight (what there is) of the film is carried by Page, so the rest of the ensemble cast are left to play it for laughs, which they do, none more so than Barrymore herself as the team's bruiser who prefers walloping her way round the track to playing by the rules. There's no weak link in the cast, the camaraderie among the women shines through. An honorary mention should go to Juliette Lewis, who plays Bliss' nemesis and is like an unhinged bionic woman in fishnets.

Ellen Page doesn't disappoint (how could she?), but nor does she come as any great revelation. She's on safe ground here, not a million miles from Juno MacGuff, minus the swelling belly and the shit-hot quips. This role isn't a stretch for Page but she is as engaging as ever, managing to be totally adorable without being a pain in the arse. It'll be interesting to see Page break her casting mould in Christopher Nolan's Inception later this year.

One grumble - the love story between Bliss and musician Oliver (the unfortunately named Landon Pigg) - fails to convince, especially during one particularly unsexy underwater scene. Throwing an obligatory love interest into the mix feels kinda cheap. Far more interesting is the love story between Bliss and the team - "I am in love with this", she tells her bemused parents. Thankfully the film deftly avoids sentimentality, which is no mean feat for a coming-of-age sports buddy movie.

The big, clanging scenes on the track are the highlight, as is the exuberance of a cast clearly having a great time. If Whip It was a cake it'd be a battenberg; gaudy, light, sweet and totally moreish, but with the potential to do your teeth some serious damage. It's a brash, boisterous film with a lot of heart and humour. Plus, girls in hot pants, a killer soundtrack and an awesome food fight. Winner.

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