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Whip It! (12A)

Rachel Winterbottom reviews Drew Barrymore's directorial début in a film about an all girl roller derby

Written by . Published on April 22nd 2010.

Whip It! (12A)

For every misunderstood teenager, there’s an emotional outlet; Paramore, guy-liner, the ‘fringe-over’ and now rollerblading. At least, that last one is what Bliss Cavendar hopes might work for her.

The world of the all-female roller derby is more terrifying and brutal than Juliette Lewis’ plunging neckline and it’s the perfect means for Barrymore to promote female empowerment.

Bliss (Ellen Page, Juno) is a misfit who stands out in stark relief against her Texas small town backdrop. She’s yet to realise what she wants from life and is swept up in her overbearing mother’s determination to have daughters she can boast about at socials.

From accidentally dyeing her hair bright blue at her latest pageant to buying shoes in a store that also sells bongs, despite the fact that shoes are not a “gateway drug”, she can never seem to please her mother, and please herself at the same time.

Between pageants, high school and working at the Oink Joint, Bliss has yet to live life to the full. Then she happens upon the world of the all-female roller derby. When she and her best friend Pash (the superb Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development) decide to attend a local match, she finds her new heroes.

Jabber the Slut, Smashley Simpson, Babe Ruthless, these may sound like characters from highly specialised porn but they’re actually part of the Hurl Scouts, a losing team of thirty-something women who happen to be recruiting. The only problem is that you have to be at least 21 to try out and Bliss is 17. Despite her best friend’s reservations, the usually timid Bliss dusts off her old Barbie blades and takes her first wobbly steps towards leaving her old life behind.

The Hurl Scouts are an explosion of colour in Bliss’s otherwise monochrome existence and she loves them for all the same reasons her mother would hate them. With her new-found confidence, a boyfriend who’s the lead singer in a band and the losing streak of the Hurl Scouts appearing to be over, it seems like Bliss Cavendar’s life is finally on a roll. But with clashing schedules between pageants and derbies, being torn between loyalty to her new beau and her best friend, her two lives are, inevitably, set to collide.

Drew Barrymore directs and fills the role of Smashley Simpson, the Hurl Scout who would rather literally beat her opponents rather than win a match. The world of the all-female roller derby is more terrifying and brutal than Juliette Lewis’ plunging neckline and it’s the perfect means for Barrymore to promote female empowerment. You’ll probably have no idea what the rules are but the important thing is that you’ll want them to win.

Juliette Lewis (channelling Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory – badly) is Iron Maiden. In her mid-thirties, she’s threatened by Bliss’s success and is yet to shake off the high school bully mentality. Lewis is your basic pantomime villain, but in a film about competitive rollerblading it’s either her or blisters. This is all superfluous, however, as Bliss’s mother was always going to be the real adversary.

Marcia Gay Harden shines in her role as Brooke Cavendar, the every-mother antagonist to her own child’s personal growth. As much as she represents the high expectations that Bliss tries, and fails, to meet, it’s easy to sympathise with her need to uphold the appearance of the model family as she struggles to comprehend why her daughter would rather wear wheels than heels (sorry).

Ellen Page proves once again that she can really pick ‘em when it comes to strong female leads. After the incredible Juno, Page has added another whip-smart role to her CV. Different enough not to be a poor second; Bliss Cavendar is vulnerable but full of razor sharp wit and potential, only really starting to grow up when she’s learning from her mistakes.

Between them, Barrymore and Page have perfected that painful, selfish, in-between stage in a teenager’s life, when the teen is aching to do their own thing and yet still under parental jurisdiction. Along with the adrenalin, betrayal and self-discovery in Whip It! there’s also heartbreak, and you feel all of it through Page’s natural talent. Brooke and Bliss’s complicated mother-daughter relationship is fully realised and is as tender as it is realistic.

However, where some characters are detailed and full of life, aside from a brief insight into Maggie Mayhem (played by the brilliant Kristen Wiig, Adventureland), you don’t ever really get to know the women behind the Hurl Scouts. Still, these violent, party-hard personas do allow them a measure of freedom as they throw off their daily roles to do what they enjoy. In their world, even in last place, they rule.

Tight school-girl outfits, girl-on-girl action and food fights – this might be a film with female empowerment as its core message, but there’s as much for the men in the audience as there is for the women.

The plot is contrived in parts, particularly the 'be true to yourself' message being hammered home in a pat ending, but the focus here is on Bliss and her mother, and the journey to womanhood. Whip It! Is a wonderful, funny and heartfelt tribute to a right of passage usually reserved for the male half of the population.


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