Rating: 2.5 out of 5
If you go online and key in the search terms “whip it”, you’ll likely pull up results for this film, the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, and a classic 1980 New Age song of the same name.
By way of simple comparison, the less-than-three-minute music video for the song by the band Devo is actually funnier than any one moment in the film, which is a mish-mash sports comedy – if one considers roller derby a sport – and coming-of-age drama.
While Ellen ‘Juno’ Page is appealing in the lead role, Barrymore’s film is one of those quirky, indie efforts that has some nice moments, and threatens to be funny without ever delivering a satisfying payoff either as a comedy or drama.
It fails where Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, independent films with an off-beat edge that knowingly captured the essence of small-town desperation, succeeded.
And it comes across like one of those kids in high school trying desperately to be cool, but not knowing that their clothes, their shenanigans and their jokes somehow just don’t fit. If you need another analogy, it’s like an extended Saturday Night Live skit that bombs.
Milking a sport or pseudo-sport for comedy has been a tried-and-tested formula in Hollywood. Recent examples include Balls of Fury (table tennis, but funnier if you call it ping pong) and Dodgeball.
In this case, whereby the film is based on the novel Derby Girl by roller derby girl-turned-writer Shauna Cross, the ‘sport’ is used as a plot device for the coming-of-age of a small-town Texan girl named Bliss (Page).
Destined for an uneventful life of fulfilling her mother’s expectations and becoming a beauty pageant participant in her footsteps, Bliss chances upon tryouts for a mediocre derby team known as the Hurl Scouts and discovers what appears to be her calling in life – for now.
She may not have the requisite size and toughness for this contact sport, where teams of ladies roller skate in formation on a circuit and use rough-house tactics to intimidate, but Bliss has speed aplenty, something that allows her to score well by overtaking as many opponents as possible.
In terms of the cinematic sports scenes, roller derby isn’t as exciting or entertaining as it sounds. The film’s attempts at comedy revolve around the antics of the players, both on and off the circuit, and one concludes that wild behaviour and snide remarks do not a comedy make.
In fact, Barrymore’s own minor role as a female equivalent of a dumb jock (“Smashley Simpson” is her name) adds little to the story, apart from raising the cringe factor.
There’s little unpredictability in the way the story turns out: mother and daughter bicker and figure out whose dreams the latter needs to live out, and the new kid on the roller derby team learns from the “school of hard knocks” how to handle life’s little challenges.
She becomes tougher, wiser and more confident about facing up to the future. Whoopee. That’s about as much enthusiasm that one can muster for this misfit of a movie. It’s not the worst film of the season, but it’s maddening for its can’t-quite-make-it dalliances.
As Devo proclaimed in their hit song, “when a problem comes along, you must whip it.” If only the studio behind this film had heeded that warning.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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