Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a girl living in Bodeen, Texas (not too far from Austin, Texas which in turn is not a million miles away from Denton, Texas). Her mum (the legendary Mrs Carmody from The Mist, Marcia Gay Harden) takes her to beauty pageants in the style of Little Miss Sunshine. Obviously, Bliss isn't too happy with this arrangement and when the opportunity comes along to try out for a roller derby team with some tattooed fishnet wearing ladies, she decides she'll have a go.
This is an infuriating film, because it is so nearly great. Sadly, it falls at two hurdles and one of them is a pretty major fall. Let's get the one out of the way that could be excusable first: the slinky little turd. Bliss meets up with a bloke out of a band in Austin, Texas and quickly falls for him due to his slinky little turd nature. The problem is that I hated him from the instant I set eyes on him and knew that he was very probably going to be a wrong un. He's just so slimy. The scenes with him and Bliss are the equivalent of the 'plot' scenes in specialist films: flick them and get straight on to the meat of the film.
And the meat in this case is the roller derby action. This is where things come good. It's standard issue in terms of sports films but that's exactly what I want from this sort of film. Do what's expected, maybe in a way that's unexpected, but do it well. For the most part that's what Whip It does. It starts off with a completely useless team that never wins and builds them up to have a crack at the championship. This sort of film needs a villain though, someone for our plucky heroine to triumph over (and no, slinky little turd doesn't count). Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) is that villain.
It helps no end that Juliette Lewis looks completely evil. But her performance is equally nasty too. She is pretty abrasive towards Bliss on numerous occasions. She never passes up on an opportunity to have a dig at her. She becomes such a splendid villain that hands are rubbed in glee at the prospect of seeing Bliss nutmeg her (or whatever the roller derby equivalent is).
This is where we get to huge problem two that is very nearly a film-breaker. Film genres have different conventions that you've pretty much got to stick to. You can mess around with them to a certain extent but if you shoot a romantic comedy where the female lead dies in the final seconds leaving the male lead alone with some razorblades and aspirins, it's going to have very limited appeal. I'm all for taking risks but if you've set something up in a film you've got to deliver. If not, you'll end up with many disappointed people. That's exactly what happens in Whip It; it spends a lot of time setting up something great and then it all falls a bit flat. If I'd reviewed it after the first time I watched it, it would have got a lot lower rating. But after watching it again, in a state of preparedness, I can just about cope with it and the final scenes almost manage to pull it around.
What does shine through though are the performances of all of the actors (apart from slinky little turd, although he does act the part of a slinky little turd perfectly well). Ellen Page is a bit like Cary Grant in the way that Cary Grant generally played the Cary Grant persona. Ellen Page always seems to play the Ellen Page persona. Whether that's who she actually is or not, it's a part she plays very well and is always a pleasure to watch. Marcia Gay Harden is fantastic as her mum, never getting overly sentimental, but her dad (Daniel Stern - C.H.U.D.) is a complete crowd pleaser, (he even gets to wear a cowboy hat at one point). Every scene he is in is a winner (in stark contrast to the slinky little turd). It doesn't end there. All of the minor roles are also extremely well done too, with not a duff note in sight. It's this and the lack of sugary Disney sick flavoured sweetness that bring it back into likeable territory.
I always knew that I was going to lose one cracking actress from the FA Cup of Actors in this match and it made rating this film particularly hard. As I finished watching it, I was going to give it a 6/10, exactly the same as Hesher, forcing yet another replay in the FA Cup of Actors. But as I thought about it, I knew that I preferred this film to Hesher and it seemed harsh that they should both get a 6. Plus I knew that I would watch this again, but I'm not so sure about Portman's effort. So I've given Whip It the benefit of the doubt, we'll call it 6.517 out of 10 and round it up to a respectable:
So that means that Ellen Page is through to the next round and will play either David Warbeck or Radha Mitchell. Doccortex will be so happy that Portman is out. Meanwhile, I will shed a little tear. Sorry, Natalie...
If you like this you could also try:
Juno, The Tracey Fragments, Rollerball.