The fast-paced, full-contact, roller-skating sport known as roller derby has been steadily growing in popularity since it was reborn in 2000 in Austin, Texas USA. As the revived sport began to take off and various all-female leagues were developed, writer Shauna Cross became involved and fell in love with the combination of spectacle, athleticism and rebelliousness. Cross’s experiences form the basis of Whip It, the directorial début of actor Drew Barrymore who also appears in the film as a roller derby player who plays for a team called the Hurl Scouts. Juno herself, Ellen Page, plays Bliss Cavendar, a 17-year-old who is sick of her small town Texan life that mainly revolves around competing in beauty pageants at her mother’s request. When Bliss discovers the world of roller derby it is not too long before she lies about her age, adopts the moniker Babe Ruthless and joins the Hurl Scouts.
From a purely cultural standpoint there is much to admire about roller derby and Whip It has captured its punk, rockabilly edge. The various uniforms/costumes that the participants wear are grungy parodies of stereotypical feminine attire, giving the players an empowered and expressive gothic pin-up look. The women who compete come from a variety of backgrounds and age groups, and are a variety of body shapes and sizes. However, despite the apparent excitement and appeal at the heart of roller derby, Whip It lacks energy. Whip It follows a reasonably formulaic set of conventions but bland romantic sub-plot aside, all the elements required to make a great sports film are in Cross’s script. The film contains a tremendous spirit but for the most part Barrymore’s lacklustre direction stifles that spirit. The editing is not tight enough, there is no sense of speed when the girls are on the roller derby rink and while the film contains a lot of great music, it is used poorly.
However, it is very difficult to dislike Whip It as it does eventually end strongly and it is so well intentioned. If nothing else it is wonderful to not only see a female sports film but a female buddy film. Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat performs well opposite Ellen Page as Bliss’s best friend Pash. Kristen Wiig (Adventureland, Ghost Town) gets to play a less overtly comedic role than usual as team-mate Maggie Mayhem and she’s wonderful. Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) is absolutely perfect as rival skater Iron Maven but it is Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, Mystic River) as Bliss’s mother Brooke Cavendar who is the highlight of Whip It. Instead of allowing Brooke to simply be the overbearing mother cliché, Harden gives her an enormous amount of sympathy and it is also to Cross’s and Barrymore’s credit that Brooke is such a fleshed out character. The scenes between Bliss and Brooke are the strongest scenes in Whip It and significantly compensate for some of the film’s weaknesses in other areas.