‘Whip It’ is essentially ‘Rollerball’ for the American Apparel set, where instead of James Caan battling fascist corporate powers you’ve got Ellen Page taking arms against crass feminine stereotypes. With her seductive and lightly anarchic directorial debut, Drew Barrymore strongarms her way into Austin’s underground roller-derby scene to tell the familiar tale of an underdog’s rise to sporting eminence. The sport itself makes little sense to the casual onlooker (it’s female-only, full-contact and involves charging around an oval-shaped roller rink on skates and looking mean), but the film is saved by the sincerity of its tone and the richness and variety of its ensemble cast – from Juliette Lewis’s hotshot banshee Iron Maven to Kristen Wiig’s nurturing Maggie Mayhem and Barrymore’s borderline psychotic Smashley Simpson. And deftly moderating her patented eye-rolling poseur shtick, Page delivers her most charismatic and least divisive performance to date as Bliss Cavendar, aka Babe Ruthless.
Taken as a florid celebration of female solidarity, the film is commendable, if hardly radical. But in the final reel, following a sappy my-first-boyfriend subplot and much indie- rock name-dropping, the focus shifts to examine Bliss’s increasingly fractured relationship with her fusty parents and a more discerning and emotionally substantial film emerges. Marcia Gay Harden, as Bliss’s ex-beauty-queen mother, shimmers in the background, desperate for her daughter to realise her potential, but also quietly devastated at the prospect of losing her to the big bad world. It’s a much needed oasis of quiet heartbreak amid the exhilarating cavalcade of sweaty roller girls.