Whip It Review


Written by James Connors
05 Monday 05th April 2010
Whip It
Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig

Films about underdog sports teams have always been popular, but ever since 'Dodgeball' exploded onto the screen the quantity shot up while the quality slipped away. Will Ferrell was about the only thing that made 'Semi-Pro' watchable, while the ping-pong flick 'Balls of Fury' was for the most part an embarrassment. It's hard to write a sports film without slipping into the now default template of "niche sports team need to raise x funds for whatever reason, suddenly go from being worst in the league to champions in the space of half a season", and it's getting a little old. The films can still be enjoyable, but the predictability tends to foreshadow the entire film before the intro credits have rolled.

'Whip It' definitely doesn't escape completely cliche free, from the moment Bliss (Ellen Page) joins the Hurl Scouts roller derby team there are several inevitabilities counting down. You know there are going to be revelations with regards to her age, and the fact that she's hiding her participation from her parents. Regardless of the fact the team never wins, you're absolutely expecting them to end up in a championship match... but none of it matters. The simple fact that the film isn't about the sport or the team, but about the girl makes everything 'expected' seem inconsequential.

The film was adapted from the book 'Derby Girl' by it's author, ex-roller derby player Shauna Cross. The book was based on her experiences growing up, and her story translates to film well overshadowing the aforementioned sports comedies. Having authentic roller derby players amongst the cast, as well as an involved experienced author, gives the games themselves a higher sense of authenticity than other films which concentrate on the laughs. That's not to say there isn't a sense of exaggeration with regards to the plays, but the fact that the sport itself is fast and violent means that it doesn't need to be as tweaked in order to make it exciting on screen. The majority of track action is short, lasting maybe a minute or two, letting the plot develop between the characters instead.

Ellen Page, similar to her 'Juno' co-star Michael Cera, is easy to criticise as her roles aren't amazingly varied and there's always worry of being typecast. The thing with Ellen is, despite being 22 when the film was made, she is able to play a teenager convincingly and with more confidence and screen presence than casting someone of the 'correct' age. For both Page and Cera, this isn't going to last forever and there's no reason to not pick good teen parts at this stage in their careers. In 'Whip It', Page's lead character undergoes a believable transformation from reluctant beauty pageant contestant to down and dirty roller derby player with the aid of her friend, played by Alia Shawkat ('Arrested Development'). A lot of the film is spent with either Page on her own or with Shawkat and the two both put out a strong performance, more than capable of carrying the film.

The other non-derby characters are equally well written and played, all of whom make you wish the cut was longer to get them some more screen time. From 'Birdman', who runs the local BBQ pit, to Bliss' long suffering father who just wants to avoid drama, they're all an essential part of the make up of the protagonist’s life. Rather than simply being told that Bliss is unhappy, we're shown first hand exactly why she wants to escape. We know in the same position, we would want to get out of there too.

A lot of credit is due to the casting and the way the derby girl roles are portrayed. What would normally be a male heavy genre piece is turned on it's toes, with a strong female cast dominating the film. Unlike the majority of female led films, romance is pushed to a side plot and the girls are shown with tattoos, bloody noses and constantly fighting. It's a very strong image, and very apt as the plot itself revolves around the end of traditional female stereotypes. Amongst the cast is Kristen Wiig who plays Maggie Mayhem, one of the principal team roles. Kristen is primarily known as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, playing wacky sketch characters but proves here she can handle a more serious role. She's backed up by Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore and Eve. If it's possible to criticise any of the casting, oddly enough it's with Barrymore herself. Her character is funny and very likable, but at times it doesn't feel like she fits in with the rest of the film. The contrast between the way she directs the movie, and the way she portrays her character, is certainly apparent and she bubbles on screen when the stylings of the film are slightly darker.

There's a lot to like about 'Whip It'. It outshines it's peers due to the quality of the direction and use of original text, taking it above the cookie-cutter nature of the current wave of sports films and placing it firmly amongst other respectable coming-of-age dramas. It's a funny, touching tale that has a feeling of nostalgia wrapped into it's stylings. Drew proves that she's a very capable filmmaker, and the talent assembled around her all play their part in putting out a fine picture

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