Teen dramas with a female slant tend to fall between two camps. In one you have doe-eyed princesses who long to find the perfect man. In the other you have outsiders who long to fit-in and are taught life lessons along the way. Both tend towards the insipid with only a few showing any real bite, Juno and Mean Girls standing out as the best examples.
From a concept which sounds shaky at best, Whip It garnered good word of mouth when it opened in the US last year. Kevin Smith even hailed it his favourite film of 2009. The idea of a Drew Barrymore-directed (leftfield) sports movie with elements of coming of age drama doesn’t seem the most inspiring of genre-hybrids.
What it shares with Juno is a lead actress in Ellen Page. Here she plays Bliss Cavendar, an indie-spirited teen adrift in small town Texas, forced to compete in beauty pageants to appease her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden). When she discovers the world of roller derby, filled with riot grrrls and camaraderie, she’s instantly hooked – but what will her mother say?
While Whip It isn’t going to win any awards for breaking new ground, what it does have in spades is warmth and heart. After an inauspicious opening five minutes, the films settles and the script is funny without being forced. The humour is natural and flows well, only falling flat when it does attempt to paint with broad strokes (particularly in any scene featuring Jimmy Fallon’s derby announcer).
For anyone unfamiliar, roller derby is a full contact, high-speed sport played, unsurprisingly, on roller skates. The punky competitors have their own unique identities and witty nicknames (Bloody Holly, Eva Destruction, Rosa Sparks) and don’t hold back when it comes to laying-out an opponent.
The plight of Page’s Bliss comes across as slightly heavy-handed and the extreme dichotomy of pageants vs punch-ups isn’t entirely necessary. Surely it’s sufficient that her character is railing against the small town mentality without having the character forced into pretty dresses and speechmaking.
If you’re willing to suspend your cynicism and go along with it, it’s wonderfully retro with an almost Karate Kid-like vibe. It rattles through sports movie clichÃ©s at a rate of noughts, from the team of underdogs to the mid-section training montage but the focus on characterisation keeps it from floundering. By the point when grievances are being aired by the medium of a food fight, it’s so infectious that it would take a hard heart not to be completely sold.
The roller derby scenes themselves are hugely enjoyable to watch. There’s a visceral energy to them compounded by the fact the sport is relatively unfamiliar. The badinage among team-mates (including director Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig and the amazing ZoÃ« Bell) seems genuine and heartfelt, without losing anything in sass. Even the adversity Bliss faces in the derby world (from Juliette Lewis) has a psychological grounding beyond that of most other films of the genre.
It’s aided by a great soundtrack showcasing the best of post-millennial indie and even the scenes that cry out ˜only in movies’ are beautifully shot and innovative, particularly an underwater coupling.
From a simple premise, it’s helped along by a sparky script and great cast. Drew Barrymore handles proceedings with aplomb, as befits someone who’s grown in up in ‘the business’. The central core of competing with maternal aspirations and finding something in your life has resonance beyond strapping on skates and, as a whole, the film is far more touching and entertaining than it really deserves to be.
What Whip It proves is that it is possible to mash-up tears, comedy and brawls with an emotional hook and valuable message in a genre that regularly talks down to its demographic. Hands-down, the most flat-out enjoyable film for ages.
As Devo presciently opined in their 1980 hit, Whip It good.
Whip It (12A) is in cinemas Wednesday 7 April