Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009)

Whip It

As the film opens, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) works at a smalltown diner near Austen with her friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) and their (only just about) boss Birdman (Carlo Alban). The tedium of this should be offset by Bliss’ hobbies but her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), monopolises her time and energy entering her for regional beauty contests, the obsession of her own youth. Her younger sister Shania (Eulala Scheel) idolises Bliss and seems set to follow her down the beauty queen path when Bliss’ time is done, all too quickly as Brooke warns her.

On a shopping trip for clothes for the next upcoming pageant, Bliss sees a pair of boots, more Doc Martin than haute couture, and determines to buy them despite her mother’s opposition and, while there, sees a flyer for a nearby roller derby. She persuades Pash to give her a lift to it and is immediately smitten with the sport, and is intrigued by racer Maggie Mayhem’s (Kristen Wiig) suggestion to try out for her team. Digging out her old roller skates, she starts to practice and turns out to be rather good, taking more after her sporty father Earl (Daniel Stern) in her tastes, even if her obstinacy in going after what she wants more resembles mother Brooke.

After getting a place on the “Hurl Scouts” team with Maggie by lying about her age, actually being too young to compete, Bliss (now renamed “Babe Ruthless”) performs promisingly, earning the enmity of the leader of the current champions, “The Holy Rollers”, and the current ‘poster girl’ of the sport, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and determines to beat her.

Much of the plot, including a ‘first love romance’ is obvious and could be drawn from a Hollywood pattern (and probably was), but this was more enjoyable than most such films. For a start, the performances. Ellen Page is a remarkable actress, and it helps that she looks younger than she is so that she can get away with playing a 17-year old pretty convincingly. She therefore puts in more complexity and depth than we’d normally expect from a teen character and comes across as sympathetic rather then whiney. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern, as her parents, also give nicely nuanced acts, clearly identifying their parental ‘type’ but with always a touch more to them just under the surface. Even the team players and beauty queen pageant contestants are given enough character to ‘live’ in their own right.

The direction was also pleasingly adept. Barrymore, also playing one of the roller derby players (Smashley Simpson), keeps everything on an even keel and the film is nicely paced. There is an outtake reel at the end of the film that, in addition to the normal ‘bloopers’ takes, and some footage of what looks like skating practice, also contains takes from scenes that didn’t make the final film, giving an impression of some of the different shapes the film could have taken.

Finally, the film opened up an interesting subculture I was not much aware of, although I will be going to see a bout at the next opportunity, as I know someone who takes part. How much of the current growth of the sport is due to how much fun this film was?

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