Whip It

Whip It

***

Reviewed by: Nick Da Costa

For all its positive aspects, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is a failure in execution, pure and simple. A sport that feels as wild, wilful and dynamic as the women who play it deserves the freedom of documentary, not the narrative constraints of film.

As it is, zipping through this rainbow-coloured world, you can’t help but remind yourself this is only eight years away from Norman Jewisons’s oppressive dystopia, where all violence and aggression has been channelled into a single sport Rollerball.

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Things aren’t so different in the fictional setting of Bodeen, Texas, where we meet our young heroine Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), looking to escape the crushing despair of small town life. Against the wishes of her strict mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) she swaps the lacy purity of the pageant stage for the frenzied fetishism of all-female roller derby.

And it’s on the track, and in the world surrounding it, that Whip It feels most vital. Equally entertaining in its depiction of the grace and fury of the matches as it is when poking fun at the traditional male-female dynamic. Coach Razor (Andrew Wilson) - his playbook the necessary injection of reason - aside, the men are either eye candy with empty promises, ape-like jocks, blowhards on short microphone leashes or punch bags for the delightful sociopath Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore).

While girl power feels rather dated now, and was always a fake and fabricated concept, in among the sexualised and satirical names there’s a solidarity between the players that feels genuine, whether it’s the bitchy and competitive Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) or the wise and welcoming Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig). Most importantly, unlike films such as (500) Days Of Summer, which are primarily from the male perspective, this female slant on life is touching and inviting rather than obnoxious.

Also Drew Barrymore clearly gets roller derby. Where most sporting dramas simply assume we understand the rules already, here we get a pictorial and propulsive breakdown of a game made up of two teams of Blockers and Jammers. The Blockers block and the Jammers evade them to score points. Simple on the surface, but go deeper and you’ve got complex strategies that are as unpredictable as their moods.

Unfortunately, every time Bliss pulls off her own signature move (the one that gives the film its title), and propels her team closer to the championship final, it also pulls us further away from the pedestrian plot that surrounds all the excitement. When we’re forced to revisit it, we, and the film, crash hard.

For every wincing blow Bliss takes during a match, she practically skips over an obstacle in the real world. Apart from one moment shared between mother and daughter, that Harden fleshes out with a lifetime of regret, disappointment, compassion and understanding, the film is tied up in a trite little bow.

Not good for Ellen Page who seems to disappear in a role that, at times, feels like a watered down Juno. Even an underwater make-out session feels bolted on rather than a well integrated moment of quirk and whimsy.

For all the fun, frothy fusion of periods that it elicits, including an excellent soundtrack, the mini food fight recalling Animal House and dialogue that comes close to vintage John Hughes ("alternative to what?") the film could have benefited from less sugar-coated fantasy.

Rather than build on the freshness and vibrancy of the earlier sporting sequences and contrasting the soulless perfection of football with the ramshackle purity of roller derby it becomes lost to repeated lapses into sentimentality and generic storytelling. As admirable a first effort as it is, you sense that in stronger directorial hands this could have had a lot more bite to go with all the charm and good humour.

Reviewed on: 11 Apr 2010
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Whip It packshot
A bored suburban girl discovers a new way to live when she attends a roller derby and meets a tough team of competitive skaters.
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Read more Whip It reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ****1/2

Director: Drew Barrymore

Writer: Shauna Cross, based on her novel

Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Juliette Lewis

Year: 2009

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US


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