Whip It Review

A couple of years ago I watched a documentary about the Austin Roller Derby scene entitled Hell On Wheels and I immediately thought that it would make a fantastic fiction film. Very shortly after this I heard that there was indeed a film in production that focused on this new kind of Roller Derby. This week sees the release of the film, Whip It, in the UK. If you’re not familiar with the new Roller Derby movement I can highly recommend checking out Hell On Wheels. It focuses on the birth of a new more rock ‘n roll female Roller Derby in Austin Texas and beyond.

Whip It is the directorial début of Drew Barrymore and stars Ellen Page in the lead role. It is in many ways a coming of age film, focusing on the main character Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), but it also draws in elements of romance, comedy and sports films. Bliss lives in the small Texan town of Bodeen where she works in a diner and enters beauty pageants, something that her mum pushes her into. Into her life enters the exciting world of Roller Derby and the colourful collection of women who are the Roller Derby’s stars. Inspired by the comment “Be Your Own Hero” (also the tagline to the film) from one of these stars, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bliss falls in love with the idea of becoming a skater in the Roller Derby.

Bliss meets a boy, they fall in love, she secretly trains to be a one of the Hurl Scouts (the Roller Derby team she idolises), she makes an enemy (Iron Maven played by Juliette Lewis) and the film builds to a climatic skate off. This all sounds quite unimaginative and simplistic really but the lovely and surprising thing about this film is that it is actually greater than the sum of it’s constituent parts.

The film is predominantly a coming of age story as Bliss goes through pretty typical teenage experiences, obviously dramatically intensified in order to make the film more engaging, but the film treats these themes in such a sweet and genuine way that rather than seem bland and uninspired the film just feels perfectly pitched. I have no doubt that if you were, like Bliss, a teenage girl living in a small town you could quite easily fall in love with this film. Whip It presents an alternative to this small town life with the excitement of the Roller Derby and with it a collection of ‘outsiders’ to connect to. Bliss’ character is embraced by the Hurl Scouts and feels part of something, capturing a sense of belonging that she feels she is missing. Even her relationship with skinny-rock-boy-in-a-band Oliver (Landon Pigg), narratively aided by a regrettably cheesy montage, is naive in a positive way as it actually feels like a genuine teenage relationship, rather than a trite and corny approximation.

It is all these elements that on paper seem so wrong that actually contribute to the film being incedibly engaging and enjoyable. The only issue it does perhaps have, as a result of this, is that it has a very narrow audience demographic. Although I enjoyed the film I didn’t feel like it had been made for me and as a result it was hard to connect with and engage with the characters. I don’t actually think this is a problem though, films should not be made for everyone and Whip It is a film that I feel gets it right for the audience that it is trying to reach.

The performances throughout are definitely worth applauding as the ensemble cast do a great job and clearly had a lot of fun making the film, something that is obvious on screen. Because of the nature of the story the film needs quite a lot of female characters to populate the Roller Derby teams and this leads to some brief but memorable performances from Drew Barrymore herself, Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell, Ari Graynor and the previously mentioned Juliette Lewis. They all bring a lot of fun to their roles, Barrymore in particular clearly really enjoying playing the ditsy and violent Smashley Simpson. Julitte Lewis is also excellent as the ‘villain’ Iron Maven and clearly relishes the mean role she gets to play. There are also excellent supporting male performances from Daniel Stern as Bliss’ dad, Andrew Wilson as the long suffering coach Razor (based on real life Roller Derby coach Brian ‘Blade’ Gallagher) and Jimmy Fallon as the obnoxious and amusing announcer ‘Hot Tub’ Johnny Rocket. Although only very small parts in the film I also loved the inclusion of the ‘Manson Sisters’ who are a great homage to the iconic ‘Hanson Brothers’ from the 1977 ice hockey film, Slap Shot.

Another important element in the film is the location of Austin, Texas which provides the setting for a lot of the film as Bliss travels into Austin to skate and to hang out with Oliver. The film references a lot of Austin landmarks, including the iconic Alamo Drafthouse cinema, Waterloo Records and there are numerous references to former Austin resident Daniel Johnston.

Whip It is a fun film and one that it is hard to dislike. Despite it’s reasonably pedestrian plotting and pretty unremarkable direction, the film is absorbing and enjoyable to watch. It also does something wonderful in the way it captures a moment in many teenagers lives where they are desperately searching for somewhere to belong to and trying to define who they are.

This review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.