Whip It


Directed by: Drew Barrymore
Written by:Shauna Cross
Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Drew Barrymore, Alia Shawkat Juliette Lewis, Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Jimmy Fallon
Released: October 8, 2009
Grade: A

Bliss Cavendar (Page) is a 17-year-old girl living in a small Texas town.  At school, she has few friends and struggles to stay motivated.  At home, she lives in fear of her overbearing mother (Harden) who insists on entering her in beauty pageants.  At work, she slaves away as a waitress (at the humorously named Oink Joint) and gets annoyed by the many customers who don’t leave a tip.

Bliss is looking to break out from her dull, ordinary life.  She is looking for a way to express herself.  The answer… is roller derby.  She goes along to an exhibition match and instantly falls in love with the fun and excitement.  Bliss hasn’t skated since she was young girl but she dusts off her old Barbie skates and hits the streets.  She quickly realises her potential.  Bliss makes it through the team try-outs and gets a spot in the Hurl Scouts line up.

Her fresh life is veiled in secrecy however.  You have to be 21 years of age to be eligible to play and so a few white lies are necessary to her teammates.  Her parents know nothing about this either.  Bliss tells them that she’s taking extra classes at school to cover up her attendance at matches and training sessions.  Her new boyfriend is also kept the dark.  He doesn’t know her age either, or the fact that she still lives at home.

Trouble lies ahead but all Bliss cares about is the roller derby track.  Her team name is Babe Ruthless and every week, she smashes the opposition with fellow teammates such as Maggie Mayhem (Riig) and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore).  They’re all trying to beat the Holy Rollers, led by the self-absorbed Iron Maven (Lewis).

Central to this film is a delightful performance from Ellen Page.  You will remember her from Juno, my favourite film of 2008, but this a different character for her.  She’s a little shy, a little more reserved.  I think it’s an important role for Page and proves that she can play someone other than the sarcastic Juno MacGuff.

Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) is also terrific as Bliss’s mum.  It’s easy to over-play the role as the bossy mother but Harden is spot on.  She shows that such a character can have two sides.  Look, let’s face it - I liked all the actors in this film.  There’s plenty of nice one-on-ones and it avoids the “stiffness” that seems to burden so many American comedies.  The cast look like they were having fun on the set (judging from the closing credits) and that comes through on screen.

So how did they all become roller derby experts?  The answer is with a lot of training.  Ellen Page had to work the hardest but all the skating cast members went through a solid month of boot camp.  They’re pretty good too.  It’s cool to see them slipping past teammates at high speed, or jumping over an opponent who has crashed to the ground.

The special preview screening I attended was filled with members of Brisbane’s roller derby community.  They’d turned up wearing their own skates and colourful outfits.  I didn’t even realise we had teams in this city.  They seemed to enjoy the movie and maybe the craze will take off once again.

Whip It does follows a familiar Hollywood formula but I liked it anyway.  It’s often the little things that can differentiate a great movie from a so-so movie.  This won’t be winning any Oscars but it provided me with two hours of solid entertainment.  Let’s call it a guilty pleasure.