Film Review with Robert Mann – Whip It

Whip It *****

Every year at the cinema there are a number of underdog films that are fully deserving of broad recognition from moviegoers but invariably pass by ignored and underappreciated at the box office, failing to even achieve the status of sleeper hit. This is particularly the case with a number of films dealing with so-called alternative culture. Every now and then such a film does manage to break out but generally the best films like this can hope for is a devoted cult following. This was very much the case with last year’s Bandslam, one of the cinematic gems of 2009 that flopped spectacularly at the box office despite great reviews and word of mouth. Whip It is very much in the same situation. Already having being released in America, it too was a box office flop, but this film – the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, starring Juno‘s Ellen Page – really deserves to be seen. Based around the alternative sport known as Roller Derby (which is a real sport in case you’re wondering) and based on the book Whip it by Shauna Cross – who herself is a former Roller Derby skater with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and skated under the name Maggie Mayhem – this is a film that delivers a whole new spin on the chick flick, a film genre that has become somewhat stale as of late, frequently being associated with the many mediocre romantic comedies being churned out by Hollywood rather than anything truly great or unique. Whip It is both of these things.

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) dreams of escaping the tiny town of Bodeen, Texas, where her mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) is convinced that she can only succeed in life if she wins the local beauty pageant. When Bliss sneaks off to the big city of Austin with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) she discovers the sport known as Roller Derby, with its girl-power-meets-punk-rock spirit and its liberating celebration of wild individuality. Inspired by the likes of Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bliss secretly tries out for a spot on Maggie’s Roller Derby team, the Hurl Scouts, a rag-tag skate team of scrappy underdogs, whose team members also include Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell) and the Manson Sisters (Kristen Adolfi and Rachel Piplica) and who are coached by Razor (Andrew Wilson). Proving a natural on her skates, Bliss is welcomed into the team and, calling herself Babe Ruthless, she leads a precarious double life, fearlessly facing off with rivals like Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor), and falling for band member Oliver (Landon Pigg) as life becomes more exciting – and complicated – than she ever thought possible, and she falls in love with something for the first time in her life.

Whip It is far from your average chick flick. It is not a cutesy romantic comedy. Nor is it a mushy romantic drama. Or even a Hannah Montana style tween movie. It is, however, a love story, just not about love between a girl and a guy but rather a girl’s love for the one thing that gives her life meaning – in this case, Roller Derby. And don’t think that because I say this film is a love story that it means the film is any way lacking edge as what we get here is a combination of drama and comedy that manages to be as raw and real as it sweet and charming, portraying a sense of female strength and independence and all round girl power that should really speak to many of today’s women. The success of this can be attributed to the winning combination of superbly quirky direction by Drew Barrymore (in her first time as director) and the fantastic screenplay written by Whip It book author Shauna Cross herself, whose experience of the sport in real life translates excellently into every facet of the writing. She clearly knows the world of Roller Derby inside and out and this shows throughout, particularly in terms of the rules of the sport, which we learn as Bliss does and that are presented in a way that is easy for those unfamiliar with Roller Derby to understand but that doesn’t seem in any way watered down or compromised for the sake of a mainstream audience as a result. Cross’ writing is also excellent in the aspects that don’t directly relate to the sport though. At the heart of the film is a sweet (if perhaps slightly predictable) coming of age story that is warm and occasionally humorous, the humour being simultaneously smart and silly, and packed full of characters that are multi dimensional, completely believable and who speak dialogue that seems completely out of real life. The characters are just as great off the page as well with every member of the cast performing to a high standard. Ellen Page channels the same energy that she put into her Oscar nominated performance in Juno, delivering a spirited performance that perfectly captures the essence of the independent and strong willed character she is playing. The always excellent Marcia Gay Harden also delivers a top notch performance as Bliss’ uptight but loving mother. In fact, everyone in the cast is excellent with particular mention going to the suitably bad-ass Juliette Lewis and the more down to earth Kristen Wiig. Now back to the Roller Derby stuff. For starters, due to a well done explanation of the rules of the sport, the Roller Derby sequences are fairly straightforward to follow, even for those with no prior knowledge of the sport, i.e. pretty much everyone. The sequences are all superbly shot and executed and the excitement of the sport into real life feeds into the scenes here which are kinetic and guaranteed to get the pulse pumping. Consequently, this is a film that offers excitement as well as heart, offering as much in style as it does in substance. Overall, Whip It is an extremely well made and hugely entertaining film that is probably going to be completely ignored at the box office. It most definitely does not deserve this fate, however, and I urge you to whip down to your cinema and see it as soon as possible.

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Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)



© BRWC 2010.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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