Starring Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, and Kristen Wiig
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Written by Shauna Cross
You know that Hulu commercial with Alec Baldwin where he’s an alien turning our brains to soft, goopy edible mush through the power of television on the internet? Somewhere there is a boardroom full of old men (or aliens) twirling waxed black mustaches and guffawing over the latest sales figures of the newest insipid feel-good rom-com. Well, hang onto your helmets and strap on your skates ladies, because “Whip It” is not that movie.First-time director Drew Barrymore slips her own role into the roller derby background of bruises and bloody noses, and instead pushes Ellen Page‘s quiet Bliss Cavendar to center stage. When the film starts in Bodeen, Texas, Bliss is trapped by her suburban mother’s repressiveness and forced to compete in beauty pageants, while the popular blond jerks at school mock her barely rebellious flannel as “alternative.” She’s not passive exactly, but when she nudges the boundaries with her best friend Pash in the hilarious opening sequence, it’s with spray-on purple hair.
Fate spins her in a new direction when she crosses paths with the local roller derby girls, who are both as graceful and serene as Esther Williams and as tattooed as truck drivers. They leave fliers for their exhibition competition, and picking one up sends Bliss into a new world of undiscovered possibilities. At first, when Bliss reveals her plan to sneak her way into Austin, the host city for the derby, Pash doesn’t buy it. But once she does, they escape the cul-de-sac, shedding their parent-approved outwear in favor of the loud and colorful beer-drenched derby. The derby girls skate hard and fast around the track, shoving elbows into faces and slamming body parts into the ground, to the cheers and jeers of the crowd. The camera puts you in the action — I found myself leaning forward for speed and flinching with every body check.
On the way out of the derby, after catching the eye of one particularly cute boy, Bliss catches a moment with Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and blurts out, “I think you guys are my new heroes.” As she scurries away, Maggie pulls her back in, insisting she try out for the team. When Bliss becomes a derby girl, it’s like she finally realizes she can be the girl, er, the woman, she never knew existed. She’s unstoppably gleeful, sweeping lies past her parents without friction, pulling Pasha into the fun, and hip-checking the bitch at school over a railing … she’s 17 and can do anything. I remember having that teenage intensity.
Unfortunately, Bliss isn’t old enough to compete without permission, to date that boy in the band, or to know what to do when the cops show up and arrest Pasha. Here is where the movie really gets smart. Nobody is treated like a one-dimensional moron. The parents aren’t just cardboard authority figures grinding Bliss down; they’re actually people with love, good ideas, and bad habits. Every time the stellar Marcia Gay Harden lights a cigarette as Bliss’s mother Brooke, she’s charming. You can’t help but wonder what aspects of Barrymore’s own relationship with her mother, Jaid, influenced the film. Bliss’s relationship with Pasha is damaged; the cute boy turns out to be stupid and awful in the ways that boys in bands are consistently stupid and awful; and the team faces a crisis because Bliss can’t play without parental permission.
Actions in this movie have refreshing consequences, and people get to make real and unexpected choices. Rather than magically being whisked off by a fairy godmother, or dolled up by a token gay friend, or getting married to a prince, Bliss has to work it out. The same way we all did. And it is exhilarating.