The opening scene of Whip It (2010) introduces Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page) preparing for a beauty pageant by dying her hair blue, much to her mother’s (Marcia Gay Harden) horror when Bliss later steps up onto the podium. It’s an amusing moment, but feels more than a little like something is missing: that perhaps this should have been preceded by another scene, that there’s something we need to have been told for this to work. It’s a feeling that nags away throughout the film. Widely publicised as the directorial debut of American actress Drew Barrymore (also appearing in front of the lens) Whip It plays out as an enjoyable coming-of-age drama.
We follow protagonist Bliss, a teenager who discovers a passion for the somewhat baffling sport of Roller Derby. I’ll be honest; having sat through the entirety of Whip It, I’m still non-the-wiser as to how the mechanics of Roller Derby indeed work, though several attempts are made to explain it. Thankfully, this isn’t a prerequisite before watching and indeed several of the film’s most memorable scenes take place on the track.
Bliss joins the Hurl Scouts, a failing team composed entirely of teenage women with slightly threatening nicknames (their real names never being revealed) including Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), and captain, Smashley Simpson (played by director Barrymore). Smashley becomes a perfect comedic vehicle for the director, who spends much of her screen time on the floor, wrestling. From what I managed to garner, this is not an allowable move in Roller Derby.
Unfortunately, the film is neither as consistently funny nor as charming as it would like to think; yet Page’s sincere performance brings some extra gravitas to an otherwise unremarkable script. At times, Whip It feels more like a children’s film with the addition of swearing and bodily fluids, than a child-like film for adults. The movie’s attempt to capture (and imitate) the success of Page’s breakout hit Juno quickly becomes all too obvious. This is Whip It at its worst; at its best it’s an enjoyable teen film, unfortunately lacking in several key departments.