When did you last see a sports film about indie misfits? Let’s face it: sports movies for teenagers are either weepy Disney underdog stories or badly-written rebel-goes-good tripe like (shudder) Stick It. Surely a whip-smart movie about teenage rebellion, mothers and daughters, small-town America, femininity, first love and cool rock chicks beating the crap out of each other, on rollerblades, can only exist on a riot grrrl Christmas list and/or in the mind of a man with a very strange fetish?
Except Drew Barrymore rolled in and adapted Shauna Cross’s book, Derby Girl, a fictionalised account of her own roller derby experiences. Now, it might sound like there’s an awful lot of issues crammed into Whip It and, with star billing for Ellen Page, it might also sound like teen angst by the numbers (on wheels). But it’s a rollicking, riotous, fun, fantastic ride and it carries off that combination of themes with a deft and light touch.
Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a small, dull Texas town. She goes to high school, where she’s bullied by a pretty, popular girl who used to be her friend, and works in a fast food joint with a gigantic pig mounted on the roof. Glamorous stuff. Mum Brooke (Harden) is desperate for Bliss to be a beauty pageant queen, just like her. But while Bliss’ younger sister merrily vogues away and says she wants to be Miss America one day, Bliss isn’t keen. And then she joins the Hurl Scouts: gum-chewing, wisecracking cool chicks with more tattoos and attitude than Bliss has ever seen in her life. Most teenagers like her, with a penchant for Doc Martins and a need to escape their pushy mums, get into writing or zine-making or they form bands or join drama groups or become groupies. They don’t tend to take up violent contact sports. Roller derby is basically Formula 1 with people instead of cars, potentially more aptly summed up as Crunch It and/or Wince At It. Indie misfits don’t take up sport, surely. But this sport’s not just for jocks.
Not that the film delves particularly deeply into the actual sport. However pivotal a plot device it may be, you get the feeling the movie may only be paying lip service to the actual workings of roller derby. We do get to see the Hurl Scouts train with coach Razor (Wilson), who’s more than a little reminiscent of a young Jeff Bridges, and of course there are plenty of fast, exciting, wince-worthy derby scenes. But the essence of Whip It is really in the conflict. Between Bliss and her mother, who only wants what’s best for her but may not have the right idea about what that actually means. Between who Bliss is – a teenager who goes to school – and who she wants to be. Having lied about her age to get into the derby league, she forms a new, sort-of-fake life for herself. It’s not a million miles away from Jenny, Carey Mulligan’s role in An Education. Jenny wanted to be sophisticated or, to be more precise, she wanted to be French. She got an older boyfriend and escaped into an older person’s world of jazz clubs and art galleries. It’s the same for Bliss, except her boyfriend Oliver (Landon Pigg) plays in a band, and her new world is full of cool parties and roller derby meets, although there are bullies here too – namely Iron Maven (Lewis), who is not impressed by the new kid on the roller scene.
We see Bliss trying on the costume of a new life, forming a new, older, cooler persona for herself. Roller Derby girls have the nicknames to match their attitude: Iron Maven, Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Bloody Holly, Eva Destruction. Bliss becomes Babe Ruthless, a girl who’s everything she feels like she’s not. It’s not exactly a revelation for Ellen Page – though that’s not to say it’s not a good performance. Indeed the only time when Whip It jars is when Drew Barrymore opens her mouth. As Smashley Simpson, she’s a little cringey. It’s difficult not to wonder if she wasn’t trying far too hard to seem like a Cool Roller Derby Chick. But her work behind the camera is excellent.
Whip It is so many films you’ve wanted to see. The one where the indie kid gets one-up on the mean girl. The one where she doesn’t hand her heart to a sub-standard man and wait for him to deflate it and stuff it in the bin, but actually manages to stick up for herself. The one where the sort-of-weirdo gets a really cool hobby and kicks serious ass. The one where it turns out the way out of small-town life involves cool rock chicks beating the crap out of each other, on rollerblades. And the one where Drew Barrymore directs her first film and it really is as good as you hoped it would be, and then some.