The directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, Whip It is a familiar tale of hero (or in this case heroine) triumphing over adversity, set in the high-speed world of roller derby.
Our heroine is Bliss Cavendar, a rather aimless teenager bored with her mother's beauty pageant ambitions for her, who discovers roller derby by accident and finds that she has quite a talent. She joins a team, despite being underage, and plays in secret without her parents' knowledge, falling for a local indie-boy singer along the way.
You know from that brief description pretty much how the rest of the film will pan out. Whip It
is a pretty formulaic story that sticks to several sports-movie and girl-friendship-movie tropes. For example, you know from very early on that Bliss, in her guise as rollergirl Babe Ruthless, will come across a spiteful adversary who dislikes her for no good reason. You know that her parents will find out and almost - but only almost - end her roller derby career and send her packing back to pageants. You know that Bliss will somehow "find herself".
However, Whip It is done so well that the cliches are almost part of the fun. A strong cast, well put-together, gives great performances, especially Ellen Page (Juno) as Bliss, who is pleasantly understated, Kristen Wiig as the tough-but-kind roller derby veteran Maggie Mayhem, and Juliette Lewis, revelling in her comedy bad-gal role as Iron Maven, a derby rival. Barrymore herself puts in some funny turns and memorable pratfalls as Smashley Simpson, Bliss's hotheaded and accident-prone team-mate. Rapper Eve is surprisingly effective as Rosa Sparks. another rollergirl.
Where it would have been easy to fill a movie like this up with crude one-liners a la Dodgeball, Drew Barrymore eschews this route, instead allowing us to appreciate the sport of roller derby itself. There are many snappily-filmed action sequences which seem to capture both the speed and the crunching blocking techniques of the girls-only game. Some real-life rollergirls might not agree, but the flying tackles and sinuous dodges make for great dramatic viewing. There is not shortage of gags either, some of them crude, in keeping with the not-taking-itself-too-seriously nature of roller derby.
Despite ticking off so many in the Big Book of Film Cliches, Whip It is a great piece of escapist feelgood comedy, a promising debut and a sweet tribute to roller derby, which the writers and directors obviously hold great respect for.