Film: Whip It

 
 

Director: Drew Barrymore
Starring
: Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawat
In cinemas
: April 9th

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno star Ellen Page. Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while plotting her escape from her 1950s throwback hometown of Bodeen, Texas.

A shopping trip to that liberal enclave, Austin, sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life playing for perennial losers the Hurl Scouts, led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss – as the fastest skater on the team, whose job is to pass other players – soon propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star – following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink, but that’s a minor quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time (augmented by Barrymore’s ultra-violent choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters). It probably helped to have Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell around.

The plot mechanics creak in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Shawat) and her mother, but this is redeemed by a pleasingly subversive finale. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress-turned-director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics to give a real sense of the fraught love between mother and daughter.

Amid all the debate about Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film, it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It is not a great film, but it’s an awful lot of fun – and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as a star actress.

In a Nutshell: Always enjoyable, if never mind-blowing.

Fergal Casey

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