Given the cinematic nature of the sport, it’s surprising roller derby-related films are so rare.
The 1970s coughed up two gems: 1972’s Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch as a bruiser beauty queen; and Unholy Rollers (also 1972), essentially a low-budget Bomber take-off starring Claudia Jennings.
Since then, filmic pickings have been slim, despite the sport’s recent surge in popularity. Enter Drew Barrymore – an honorary derby queen if ever there was one – whose directorial debut is a love letter to the girl-powered game that balances rink-bound action with attitude and coming-of-age warmth.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a small-town girl from Oklahoma saddled with a clueless mother (the splendidly sour-faced Marcia Gay Harden), a nowhere job at a diner, and a fledgling career as the world’s most unlikely beauty pageant contestant.
Meeting some gregarious roller-girls on a rare shopping trip, she defies her mother (and spindly teenage frame) and joins the team.
Her new crew – the Hurl Scouts – consists of derby devotees with some of the best character names of 2010: Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself, hanging back but bagging memorable moments: “Food fight!”).
Bonding with Page over bruises and black eyes, they become a sort of surrogate family-on-wheels.
Thoughtful and big-hearted, Whip It bears little resemblance to its bone-crunching ’70s forerunners. Roller derby’s bloody punk-rock aggression has mostly been sanitised, so don’t expect any high-flying violence.
Or, for that matter, any wildcard plot surprises. But you can bank on some terrific performances – Juliette Lewis as Page’s bad-ass rival and Wiig as derby-mom – a hip, rousing soundtrack (everyone from MGMT to rockers 38 Special), witty dialogue, and a gleefully contagious sense of team spirit.
Barrymore may not be the next PTA, but she gives the underdog template a good, honest, un-cheesy workout.
The DVD extras are disappointing – particularly in view of the possibilities. There’s a batch of deleted scenes and EPK soundbite interviews with the principals.
A doc of some kind on the history of the sport – or even a blow-by-blow explanation of roller derby’s confusing scoring system – would have raised the disc’s game.