Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) would like to be a seventeen-year-old lady, specifically a beauty queen in the local pageant, though Bliss really isn’t interested, it just isn’t her thing and she is feeling forced into participating. Not that her debut on the stage went too well, when she had tried to dye her hair and it had come out streaked with blue; Brooke was furious, and her daughter didn’t make too much progress. Soon she is being taken to the local salon to get her hair dyed brunette again, and it seems she will never escape this smalltown life, where she is trapped in a waitressing job at a local diner, with only her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to brighten her day. Until…
Yes, there is a way out for Bliss, and it involves rollerskates, for Whip It was a hark back to the days of roller derby movies making their mark on the cinematic landscape, that time being the nineteen-seventies when Raquel Welch zoomed around the track in Kansas City Bomber or Claudia Jennings had a rough, tough time of it in Unholy Rollers. But we had moved on from those days when the sex and violence were dominating action drama such as that, so what this was turned out to be more of a coming of age tale for its teenage protagonist, whereby she finds something she’s good at and that helps her rites of passage away from the clutches of her mother and by extension, the whole town she is suffocated by.
This was one of those movies where a star slips behind the camera to prove they can make it as a director as well as an actor, and Drew Barrymore was that star, though presumably because it was expected she also took a role in the story, a supporting one as a member of the Hurl Scouts who Bliss joins up with. She had assembled a nice ensemble to play against Page, with many recognisable faces, from Kristen Wiig as the “aunt” figure Maggie Mayhem (they all have jokey names) to stuntwoman Zoe Bell as Bloody Holly and rapper Eve as Rosa Sparks – there was some degree of amusement in hearing the punning as dreamt up by screenwriter Shauna Cross, who based her script on her book, which in turn was drawn for her actual experience.
If you see a photo of Cross, you can understand why she would be a formidable roller derby participant, though in contrast Page was about five centimetres tall, and therefore none too convincing as a bruiser, so her raison d’être is that her speed makes her a great player, therefore a vital member of the team when getting through the pack was the most important aspect, for Bliss at least. Some complained the depiction of the sport owed more to those movies of the seventies than it did to the way it was arranged in the era Whip It was made (fair enough, probably not Rollerball), but it didn’t come across as particularly egregious when it was the building up the self-esteem of the heroine that was the overarching theme of the piece.
Indeed, there was more business taken care of away from the track than there was on it, though the action was neatly handled by Barrymore and her stunt team, with a raw, enthusiastic tone to the sequences where the cast got their skates on. Where it faltered a little more was away from the more outright comedic scenes, as when Bliss has to reconcile with her parents and Pash, not mention her teammates who didn’t know she was underage – twenty-one is the limit without the parental approval Bliss would struggle to get, so she claims to be twenty-two – it did veer too close to cliché of a sort we had seen too many times before in coming of age movies. The bits where our protagonist goes all sad in order to make the final triumph all the more sweet were by now as much a test of the audience’s mettle as they were for the characters, and the romance that goes sour was yet another element of playing it safe with the structure to teach a life lesson or two. Even so, there was enough bright and positive about Whip It to prove its worth, and it found a twist on the underdog trope into the bargain.