Whip It

whipitI was destined to rank this movie high for two reasons.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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8 thoughts on “Whip It

  1. Alex says:

    This was the best movie I’ve seen in years. There are few movies that will drive me to comment on this blog or anywhere else. Despite my reputation, I can cry at the drop of a hat. That Sandra Bullock trailer gets me every time. And since this movie started with that trailer, I basically cried on and off for nearly two hours. In Whip It!, I saw a glimpse of my own girls (the coming fights, misunderstanding and regrets) and all those girls I teach every day. I can’t help but hope and pray they find something akin to what Roller Derby is for Bliss.

    A scene I loved that Clay didn’t point out was one between Juliet Lewis and Ellen Page where Lewis’ character recounts how she found Roller Derby. It was heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, a shout out to those women who are thirty-somethings and beyond – searching for something that they not only love, but are really good at. I can’t wait to watch Buffy and all those movies Clay mentioned, including this one, with my girls.

  2. Amy says:

    I, too, loved this film. I’m surprised neither of you mentioned what to me was a highlight: The relationship between Bliss and Pash. I so adored Alia Shawkat’s performance (who, I just realized THIS VERY MOMENT, was Maeby on Arrested Development!) and found their friendship achingly real. That lovely, surprising, and inspired moment at the end of the film with the reveal that Pash was not only able to find her way out of this small town, but to find her way out all the way to frakkin Columbia, was perhaps my favorite of the film.

    I also very much liked the fact that the team had a male coach and that he was a good guy who supported and helped them become better. I was disappointed by the predictable and unnecessary turn of having the boy betray the girl. Not sure why any of that needed to be in the film – but it was pretty cool to finally see the face behind the name (Landon Pigg) I always see on Coffee House. Still, as the mom of a son, with whom I was watching this film, I find it equally important that “girl power” films find that power by demonstrating the decency and empowerment in both the girls and the boys. Thus, Ever After and Ella Enchanted (you guys have to add that one to your list!!) and Mulan and the like will have the edge over this one in my book.

  3. Amy says:

    Oh, and hold on one second with that depiction of me! Yes, I cry easily. But I’m searching my mind to think of a film I thought sucked through which I cried. Do you have a particular example in mind? Or were you just employing hyperbole to make a point? ;P

  4. Amy says:

    Ooooo – Julie and Julia – great example of a girl and guy power movie 🙂 I think I see a new blog entry on the horizon!

  5. Clay says:

    Yeah, I should have mentioned Alia Shawkat… I love her and loved their relationship in the film. The coach was played by Andrew Wilson, brother of Owen and Luke, and he was another highlight.

    The boy was the least interesting part of the movie, I agree.

  6. Andrea Katz says:

    I found the way she handled the love relationship very fascinating. Particularly the dialogue where she said she didn’t want to be the person who…I can’t remeber it verbatim but it was something like, the kind of person that would accept his weak explanation for the picture of the girl wearing her mom’s shirt. It just reinforced for me how sharp she was and how strong.
    On the other hand, it was a really big suspension of belief for me to find in her that “ruthless agression” she was supposed to have. i never stopped seeing her as way too sensitive for that stuff, but it didn’t even occur to me untill later that I didn’t buy it because I was so in love with this movie from statrt to finish! I agree with all your commentsabove and I also loved “Maeybe” in this and their friendship. It was a great female empowering film.

  7. Amy says:

    Well, her ability to take – or give – a hit was not the most intuitive part of the sport for her. Her speed was what made her successful; she had to learn to become more aggressive, which I thought made sense for her character.

    As for her brushing off the boyfriend, I liked that she made it about the fact that he didn’t return her call, regardless of why he didn’t (and whether the why included another person). His insensitivity was the bigger issue. Still, I’m just not as big a fan of films that require their women empowered at the expense of healthy relationships with the men in their lives. That she dumped this particular insensitive clod didn’t particularly bother me as much as the fact that the filmmakers decided to go in that direction at all. You have Daniel Stern hiding in a trailer to watch his football games, afraid of his powerful wife, and then the first boy to whom Bliss decides to “give everything” is one who didn’t deserve her trust. Eh.

    So more Pash and Bliss, more scenes with the third Wilson brother 🙂 helping to empower his female team (and being secure enough to romance one of them), less of the stereotypical “boy wrongs girl” subplot (though I agree Bliss handled it well).

  8. lilly says:

    i just finished watching this movie i love it and it was great but i think i liked it to much because i just made a flyer of my own for it wow !

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