Can Drew Barrymore whip the roller derby genre into shape?

Whip It is the post-punk, feminist Slap Shot. Well, that's John Patterson's pitch anyway

Ballet dancing is a fine art, ice skating is campy, is kitsch, and roller derby is just trashy. That's the hierarchy of legitimacy as it plays out in some of your girlier physical activities and, true to form, I find myself tending towards the trashier end of the spectrum, where one finds Drew Barrymore's two-fisted, eight-wheeled, candy-coloured directorial debut Whip It.

Barrymore has nicely adapted the roller derby revival of the last decade into a movie about a lonely smalltown girl (Ellen Page) who finds a second family among the waitresses, grocery store clerks and single moms who, under wrestling-style aliases like Bloody Holly, Rosa Sparks and Smashley Simpson (Drew herself), make up her local team. True to the rules of the sports-movie genre – and its surprisingly abundant cadet genre, the roller skate flick – there's a lot of mean face-elbowing, sucker-punching and charley-horsing, and the usual game-by-game seasonal arc towards the big final, on the path to which we become no wiser in our understanding of the sport's bylaws and scoring system.

It's the post-punk, third-wave-feminist version of Slap Shot, Rollerball and, most importantly, Kansas City Bomber (1972), and if I'd been a studio executive, that's the pitch that would have opened the chequebook. Kansas City Bomber, the ur-text of the 1970s revival of roller derby, has, like many good-bad movies of yore, been in need of an overhaul for a while now. It starred Raquel Welch, always more of a special effect than an actress, and Helena Kallianotes (the misanthropic hitchhiker in Five Easy Pieces), fighting it out in cheesecake slow-mo sequences that look like mudless mud-wrestling, under the Svengali-esque tutelage of creepy league manager Kevin McCarthy. Remove the McCarthy figure, give the players an ironic, punk rock self-awareness, put the fightin' femmes in charge, and you have something like Whip It.

What was it about the 1970s and skating? Kansas City Bomber was just one skate flick on a trajectory that passes through Unholy Rollers, The Addams Family: The Roller Derby Story, Rollerball itself (which would have been way better with Lynda Carter instead of James Caan, but I digress), past Roller Boogie, starring Linda Blair, all the way to the tinselly excesses of Xanadu.

Skating – be it in the form of endurance races, skate-marathons or roller derby – seems to become more popular in times of licentiousness, corruption and excess, like the 1880s, the 1920s and the 1970s. I guess the more money there is in the economy, or the greater the level of anxiety or abandon in the cultural bloodstream, the greater the likelihood that audiences will come out en masse to root for hot and/or thuggish chicks in tight outfits to knock seven shades of crap out of each other


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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