Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Review: Whip It

Rated: PG-13

Website: Official Whip It site

Starring: Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Alia Shawkat

My Review: Using my brilliant powers of being able to see into the future, I predict that the most common criticism of Whip It will be that it’s just another “misfit teen finding her place” movie. And to that I say, “True,” and “So what?” If you break every movie down to its most base elements, you can see that the same basic stories are constantly revisited; love is hard, heavy is the head that wears the crown, brilliance is often seen as madness, being a teenager sucks, etc. But as long as new movies continue to tell these base stories in original and inventive ways, as Whip It does, I don’t see the problem.

Bored to death in Bodeen, TX, and disinterested in the beauty pageants her mother pushes her into, Bliss (Ellen Page) is the perfect example of a teenager who desperately needs to find her own niche in the world. She’s a bit shy and awkward, and dresses sort of weird, but after a trip to a roller derby bout in big city Austin, things start to click into place. Determined, she dusts off her old Barbie skates and gets herself back into skating shape, ultimately landing a spot on the team and being rechristened as “Babe Ruthless.” Which of course has to be hidden from her mother, who would never approve, let alone understand. And while Bliss is loving her new derby family and the feeling of finally belonging somewhere, there’s a veteran derby girl who has no intention of letting a young upstart steal her glory on the track. And her new passion creates strain on her relationship with her best friend. And then there’s the inevitably fallout when her mother discovers that “I’m taking an SAT class” really means “I’m in the roller derby, kicking ass and taking names.”

So yes, this story has been done before. But here’s where Whip It gets it right:

  • Setting the story in the world of roller derby. Sports and the arts are the primary areas where teens in movies find their passion, but the roller derby is a very underrepresented activity (both in movies and real life). I didn’t even know the sport still existed until a few years ago! While it’s not as violent as it once was (it’s definitely a sport now, rather than a bloody free-for-all), it’s still a highly competitive and risky game. Derby girls need to be tough, fearless, skilled, quick on their feet, and as Bliss’s derby name says, ruthless. So if you get nothing else out of this movie, you’ll at least walk away knowing a bit more about a sport that many people aren’t even aware of.

  • Not falling into traditional teen angst traps. Of course a coming-of-age story is going to have some good old-fashioned angsty teen drama in it, but Whip It does a nice job of showing just enough so that you get the idea of how Bliss is feeling, without beating you over the head with it.

  • Showing that women care about more than men, weddings, and babies. While most will label Whip It as a “chick flick” (I wouldn’t), they have to at least concede it’s not the same type of chick flick we always see. It seems like every female-centric movie that’s released has to do with finding a man, planning the “perfect” wedding, or agonizing over having a baby/being a parent. And while there’s nothing wrong with these things, there is a bit more to life for most women. We have hobbies, interests, and passions that are all our own and have nothing to do with what filmmakers seem to think traditional women want. Sure, there’s a guy that Bliss thinks is oh-so cute, but he takes a backseat to her pursuit of her derby dreams.

  • Accurately portraying a female friendship. All too often in movies a close female friendship eventually dissolves into petty cattiness, all in the name of comedy. But it’s not funny. Or true to life. Bliss’s true-blue buddy is Pash (played by Alia Shawkat, who will be 40 and still known as “Maeby, from Arrested Development”), and the portrayal of their friendship is pretty spot-on. They’re loyal to each other, but they have disagreements. They support each other, but they don’t always understand the other’s motives. They laugh and act goofy together, but they’re sassy and mocking, too. A true friend is someone who will hold back your hair when you drunkenly hurl, tell you when you’re being a selfish bitch, and not allow justified hurt feelings to turn into a catfight. Why so few filmmakers find that middle ground between “precocious as hell” and “battle in the Thunderdome” when it comes to female friendships, I’ll never know, but Whip It finally shows that a friendship between two women isn’t all that different from a friendship between two men.

Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut in Whip It (and costars as a hilarious derby girl who never passes up a good fight), and she’s off to a great start in this new career move. The scenes at the actual derby are the highlights of the movie, as you move from feeling like an audience member to one of the skaters on the track and back again. But the quieter, everyday moments also stick with you due to how genuinely they’re set up. At times the pacing feels a bit off; Bliss’s new love interest isn’t a huge part of the movie, but when he does show up he tends to slow the pace down enough to make you want to cry, “Get back to the derby!” And some of the shots are a bit too cliché, even for a teen movie like this (Bliss is feeling pensive and thoughtful as she stares into space, got it). But these are minor flaws in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. I look forward to whatever Barrymore has coming next; maybe something in the world of female boxing that’s less depressing than Million Dollar Baby. She’s already shown she knows how to throw (and take) a punch.

Bottom Line: Whip It revisits some familiar territory, but has plenty of new stuff to offer. It’s refreshing to see a movie about female empowerment that actually features empowered females from all walks of life. I was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening where Drew Barrymore showed up at the end to talk about her directorial debut. She obviously loved the source material, her castmates, the hard work she poured into the movie, and the message behind it all. If more filmmakers cared this much about what they create, maybe we could finally do away with the (sadly, true) stereotype that teen movies and “chick flicks” suck.


  1. I really liked it too. Great review.

  2. Drew Barrymore did an awesome job directing Whip It; it was a lot of fun to watch -- made me want to go watch roller derby and drink cheap beer

  3. It made me want to go an try out for a roller derby team. Unfortunately, I can't roller skate, so I doubt I'd be very good at roller skating while fighting. If anyone ever invents a power walking derby, I am so in.