Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Worth Watching: Whip It (2009)

Title: Whip It
Director: Drew Barrymore
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Whip It movie poster

Whip It is a funny, energetic and heartfelt movie about Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page), an awkward teen who comes to feel most at home in a giant warehouse in Austin, Texas where she skates in a roller derby league. Roller derby is an aggressive contact sport on quad skates, explained nicely in the movie; the league Bliss joins is made up of amateur teams and all the skaters are women, which is what most roller derby leagues look like. She gets recruited to the Hurl Scouts, the underachieving underdogs of the league, and skates alongside the likes of Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), who become a second family to her. (Bliss's roller derby name is Babe Ruthless.)

Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, and Kristen Wiig

When watching Whip It I sometimes knew what was coming, but other times my expectations were overturned. The movie is character-driven; it isn't chained to a generic coming-of-age or underdog athletes plot. It feels like a labor of love, with characters who are loved. The story is really about Bliss's character development, how roller derby gives her a new comfortableness in her own skin and a growing assertiveness that changes her relationships with other people.

Bliss being cheered by her roller derby team

The movie doesn't have any villains. Bliss butts heads most often with her mom, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), who in a lesser movie might have been portrayed as a shrill over-the-top tyrant, but here is human and understandable; Marcia Gay Harden softens her, gives her vulnerability, and she and Bliss actually have conversations, confront each other with love and pain. Bliss's arguments with her mom aren't about mindless rebellion or not caring anymore what her parents think, because she does care, and after getting a sensible perspective from Maggie Mayhem (her mentor/closest friend/"cool aunt" from her team) she also hopes for a truce. In part she and her mom argue because their temperaments are similar - both stubborn and tough, with a tendency to feel insecure about themselves.

The one character who comes closest to being villainous is Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), a scarily intense skater who is Bliss's biggest rival in the league. Juliette Lewis plays her in such a way that when she smiles you don't know whether she's going to slap you on the back or slam your face into a wall. But Iron Maven isn't psychotic, and there's in fact a strange respect that springs up between her and Bliss. She's like a mentor from the dark side, pushing Bliss to be as competitive as she can be and live up to her derby name, Babe Ruthless.

Ellen Page skating

It's great watching the actresses roller-skating and pulling off cool moves on the track. One of them, Zoe Bell, is an actual stunt double in film and television (she was Uma Thurman's double in the Kill Bill movies), but all of the actresses get to show off their athleticism and just have fun skating.

The Hurl Scouts and their coach

The movie also has a romance between Bliss and a musician, Oliver (Landon Pigg), which starts off sweetly enough but by the end feels a little tacked-on, the obligatory romance in a coming-of-age story. The men I liked watching in this movie were the Hurl Scouts' coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson), who achieves a state of supreme well-being when his team finally decides to study his playbook, and "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket (Jimmy Fallon), the announcer/commentator in the league, who's just happy to be there, hungover and enthusiastic, trying and failing to score with the women. Also Bliss's dad, Earl (Daniel Stern), is pretty sweet, especially when he and the mom make eyes at each other.

Given how Whip It turned out I hope that Drew Barrymore keeps directing movies. The acting is good all around, especially from Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, and Kristen Wiig. The movie has humanity and is centered on the characters; it also does something relatively rare in movies - portray friendship among many women, who discuss topics that have nothing to do with guys and clothes (though they talk about that too). And it's full of life and spirit. It should be better known.

*All images link back to their sources (Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster Community).