14. Whip It, directed by
Drew Barrymore

14. Whip It, directed by
Drew Barrymore

Roller Derby and Bruises the Size of Your Face


I love any movie with an underdog and a hidden talent. Bliss (Ellen Page) certainly checks both of these boxes in the delightfully entertaining Whip It, directed by Drew Barrymore. Stifled by a small-town life where roads lead to dead-ends, Bliss and best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) are desperate for their eventual escape. In the meantime, they work at the Oink Joint and dutifully attend school. Meanwhile, Bliss is forced to endure the local Beauty Pageant scene, courtesy of her mother’s wishes. In case you were wondering, yes, her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) was once a Beauty Queen herself, meaning Bliss is going to find it hard weaselling her way out of competing.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Bliss is not a fan of pink and tends to gravitate towards Doc Martins over dresses. Her mother and her are entirely different people, with entirely different interests. Different skills too, as Bliss finds out when she straps on a pair of skates and tries her hand at roller derby. Not only is she naturally skilled in that department, but her immediate passion for the sport fuels a determination that sees her practising at all hours.

Joining a derby gang brings a new life-force along with an adopted family of misfits and butt-kickers. Two of these ladies are Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) and Kristen Wiig, playing Maggie Mayhem, a relatively straight-laced character for her. It comes at the perfect time too, with her teammates becoming the support network Bliss needs as tensions increase at home. Another addition to Bliss’ new world? Oliver (Landon Pigg), the straggly musician who is quick to steal her heart. This adds another colour to the widening palette of her life with derby.

Barrymore delightfully steers this ship, and while it’s a used formula, it really doesn’t matter. Certainly, there are corny moments in the demonstration of Bliss’ growth from timid to self-assured, which almost seems to happen too fast. Once again though, it doesn’t detract too heavily from the film. The added flavour of roller derby is fresh and exciting. The games themselves are fabulous fun – filled with ramped up violence and dramatized rules for maximum audience pleasure. Aside from its entertainment value, on a metaphorical level the sport is the vehicle Bliss needs to skate into her own as a woman. She develops a confidence and purpose in herself, and a group of friends whose bond extends beyond the… rink?

Stitching the film together is a definite sense of girl empowerment, although the characters portrayed here aren’t the delicate and vulnerable creatures so frequently shown, but hard-hitting, independent and diverse women who are capable of jumping back up when knocked down (literally…). These are the ladies who don’t give a shit about what people think or about succumbing to perfect etiquette. Moreover, there’s an underlying message that says it’s not about being the best, but being your best. For a Hollywood movie, it’s a breath of fresh air, and bolsters the people of everyday life. The heros in this film aren’t corporate lawyers or Olympic sportsmen, or bohemian creatives or even models, but rather tough, ordinary women who are fulfilled by playing roller derby. Making them even more endearing is that the team Bliss joins is notorious for being crappy. They sing “we’re number two” after a match with a joy that is enviable.

I could watch Ellen Page in anything, and I’m as mesmerised by her performance in Whip It as in Juno or Inception. There’s never a moment that I question her believability, and she is irrepressibly likable as Bliss. Aside from Page, Marcia Gay Harden and Alia Shawkat are very strong. Kristen Wiig, too, acts as an alternate maternal force for Bliss rather convincingly, and Andrew Wilson is the lovable Coach, a tragic zealot amongst a team of slackers. Surprisingly, Jimmy Fallon pops up as the derby commentator, nailing it with his energy and humour.

A great cast is always one step towards wrapping the audience more thoroughly into the story, as is cast chemistry, which this film has in spades. There is a real dynamic between the cast members, especially the derby team. This was presumably aided by the actual boot camp the actors undertook before filming. The vibe is one of mischievousness, with an undercurrent of loyalty. These friends will punch you on the arm and tease you, but more importantly will defend you to the grave.

With lovable characters, empowering themes and thrilling derby matches, Whip It is a typical feel-good film. What’s not to love?

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