Movie Review: Whip It

Drew Barrymore's roller derby drama is straight from the 80s - and all the better for that

Whip It

Cert: 12A, 111 mins

Starring: Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore

I must admit, I’ve made a few wrong assumptions while watching a film before, but Whip It – the effortlessly fun emo-chick coming-of-age drama from Drew Barrymore, about the world of women’s roller derby – must mark the first occasion I’ve pegged the wrong decade.

My thoughts went, ah, look, Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat with big hair and off-the-shoulder day-glo tops (is this set in the 80s?). Jocks like they used to make ’em, all square heads and square teeth and rubbish come-backs, like the ones in Teen Wolf and Weird Science (I think this is set in the 80s). There’s Ellen Page, but not the sardonic, knowing Ellen Page who speaks from the side of her mouth from Juno, but a simpler, less defensive, more naive, more wide-eyed Ellen Page (this really could be set in the 80s). It’s low on irony (it’s the 80s). It’s high on happy-music montages (this can’t not be set in the 80s). The lead character is wearing a Casio calculator watch (it’s set in the 80s!). For the love of God, there’s a food fight! It’s set in the 80s!

Except it’s not. Halfway through, someone uses Google.

Yet to all intents and purposes, Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It – irony-free, goofily charming, endlessly energetic, predictable but in the nicest possible way – is an 80s movie. It’s may not be set there, but that’s where it’s from, and it’s all the more wonderful for that.

Take the set-up. Page plays Bliss, a small-town girl stuck working part-time with her friend (Shawkat) in the local Oink Joint diner, going to beauty pageants she hates for the sake of a mother she loves, and looking for a way – any way – out. So far, so simple.

She finds it with roller derby, a brutal skate sport that’s part Olympic cycling without the bikes, and part fight scene in Prisoner Cell Block H without the fake blood. People have names that sound hardcore dominatrixes – Maggie Mayhem, Smashley Simpson, Iron Maven – which, of course, is pretty much what they are.

“What’s your dirty name?” one skater asks another. “Java the Slut,” comes the proud reply.

You can see, of course, what’s coming. An acceptance with these tattooed tom boys (among them Juliette Lewis, looking more like Steven Tyler by the day, and Barrymore herself, playing a woman who’s evolved violence into a mating ritual) that she doesn’t find anywhere else. A sports drama that climaxes at the tournament finale. A coming-of-age tale as Bliss finds love. And parents that really, really don’t approve.

But it’s the details that matter here – like the spot on scene where Bliss holds her friend Pash‘s (Shawkat) hair when she’s sick at a party, where not a word feels out of place. Or the brutally kinetic roller derby scenes, the camera zooming around the track like a rabbit at a dog race, Days of Thunder with tights and lipstick.

There are no winks, no nods, no deadpan Napoleon Dynamite-style silences, or Juno-style comebacks, or Rushmore-style quirks. But something more elemental: simple things, done well, done honestly. At a time when the above films make the character their selling point – the adult in a child’s body (Juno), the child in an adult body (Dynamite) – there’s something so refreshing in Barrymore simply saying: no, let the kid just be a kid. There’s nothing odd or strange or special about Bliss. But then, these days, that makes her very special indeed.

You’ll be happy to know there is a happy ending though. This is an 80s movie after all.

7 out of 10

Stuart McGurk

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