First, it’s a girl power film. As the parents of two young girls, my wife and I have been compiling a list of movies we’ll show them when they’re old enough… movies that take on gender stereotypes and present realistic, positive female characters in lead roles. Films such as Bend it Like Beckham, Bring it On, Ever After and Whale Rider (my favorite), to name a few. And of course we have seven whole seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer waiting patiently on the shelf.
Whip It might just be the most girl-power-y girl-power movie yet. It follows small-town Texas teen Bliss Cavendar (played by Juno‘s Ellen Page) as she is awakened from a malaise brought on by her job at a dead-end diner and her mother’s fixation on beauty pageants. What she falls in love with isn’t anything glamorous or fancy, and it isn’t a guy — it’s roller derby.
It’s never exactly clear why roller derby grabs hold of Bliss so forcefully, and I’m undecided whether or not that’s a flaw in the film. Was it just that she needed something — anything — to fall in love with, and it just so happened to be a group of tattooed tough girls on skates who rolled into her life one afternoon in Austin? Or is it that some things grab us with no rhyme or reason and it’s fruitless to seek logic behind what we’re drawn to? I lean toward the second explanation.
At any rate, Bliss finds her calling, and it’s skating in a circle trading blows with much larger women under the moniker Babe Ruthless. Roller derby provides Bliss with camaraderie, an outlet for aggression and, most important, the feeling of being great at something.
Convincing her parents — particularly her mother — that this is a good thing is another challenge altogether.
And that brings me to the other reason I consider Whip It such a success: It nearly made me cry. Now I know people who can cry at the drop off a hat… at Hallmark commercials, action films, airport reunions, you name it. I’ve seen my sister, for example, bawl her eyes out at a movie and state afterward that it sucked.
I don’t work that way. It takes an act of Congress to make me cry at a movie or TV show. And when I do (or nearly do, because I don’t think I’ve ever shed an actual tear in a movie theater) it means I really love the movie. I can’t think of any exceptions. In recent years I recall welling up at Up, Brokeback Mountain, In America and the aforementioned Whale Rider — fine movies all — but I can’t think of anything mediocre that worked on me like that.
Whip It did, primarily because of the lovely performances by Ellen Page and Marcia Gay Harden (as Bliss’ mother). Their relationship forms the core of the film, but subtly so, and a series of scenes between and about them toward the end of the film really hit me hard.
One of my favorite things about Whip It is the attention paid to Bliss’ parents (Daniel Stern plays the dad). In many films like this the parents are played as a joke or an obstacle. They usually come around to rally behind their child, but more because the script demands it than for any reason organic to the character. That’s not the case here. Bliss’ parents have valid concerns about her well-being and future and if they don’t understand her need to try this unusual, dangerous thing it’s mostly because they haven’t been asked to.
At one point, Harden’s character asks Bliss how she thinks these brusque, heavily tattooed women fare in the real world. “How do you think they’re received when they’re trying to get a job, or applying for a loan?” she asks, and she has a point. But so does Bliss, who responds “I think it depends on the girl.”
Ellen Page does wonderful work here. She doesn’t have the hipster dialogue of Juno to help shape her character — Bliss is one of those tough acting assignments… a regular person. Page beautifully conveys her longing for a way out, her surprise at her own hidden abilities, the turmoil she faces in dealing with her parents. Just looking at her determined face in the film’s wonderful poster, I’m dropped back into her world, ready to root her on some more.
I can’t wrap up this review without giving serious props to Drew Barrymore, whose directorial debut this is. I’ve always enjoyed Barrymore as an actress and a personality and I’m impressed at the confidence and heart with which she pulled off this first film. At 34 years old, Barrymore has already acted in more than 60 films, produced a dozen and has now established herself as a director to watch. Just imagine the career she will have under her belt 40 years from now!
This year, the final year of the first decade of the new millennium, has already been a fabulous one for movies. Not for transcendent masterpiece type stuff (though there have been a couple of those) but for the sort of films that could take up permanent residence in my DVD player. Films such as Star Trek, Adventureland, Zombieland, I Love You, Man and now Whip It. Films like these are often left off “best” lists but wind up with a more special distinction: favorites.
Here’s one movie snob who’s starting to believe those lists should be one and the same.