At first, I thought “Whip It” was a misleading title. In light of the the fast-paced, smash-happy trailers, they would have you believe that it’s all about hardcore chicks beating the crap out of each other and partying hard. But the film’s actually about relationships. Not the hip relationship between Ellen Page’s character, Bliss, and her Urban Outfitters boyfriend, but real relationships: the kind that real teenagers have with their best friends when they’ve been close forever and can hardly imagine a life apart, the sort of tempestuous interactions that only a teenage girl can have with her mother and that a girl feels when her father chooses to play Switzerland in life-or-death social matters. Don’t worry, fellas. There are still plenty of hot babes on roller skates. But those skates also serve as vehicles for a fairly realistic and rather poignant coming-of-age story.
Ellen Page plays Bliss, a 17-year-old girl in a small Texas town who is starting to grow tired of being her mother’s dress-up doll in local beauty pageants. When she’s not going through the motions with the debutants, she works alongside her best friend, Pash (“Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat) at a BBQ joint, counting down the days till she can get the hell out of town. One day, while shoe shopping in Austen with her mother and sister, she encounters a carefree group of Roller Derby girls and is immediately smitten. After she and Pash attend a game, Bliss decides to try out for an opening on underdog team, the Hurl Scouts. She’s clumsy but fast and somehow manages to make the cut. So yeah, there’s a bit of the underdog story you expect, complete with progress montage and hipster soundtrack. But there’s also much, much more.
I did not expect to like this movie. Ellen Page is generally a one-dimensional actress who tends to rely on her forehead to convey emotions. But she was surrounded by an able-bodied supporting cast and given such terrific material. I barely noticed her puppy-dog pout. Kristen Wiig, always hilarious, is very effective as the unexpected voice of reason. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern put in empathetic performances as Bliss’ multi-layered parents. Alia Shawkat (who would have made a better lead) steals her scenes with the jokes and drama alike.
There are a lot of surprises in “Whip It.” Just when you think you know where it’s going, they throw in a curve ball. Bliss’ pageant-obsessed mother is not a stereotypical former debutante and housewife. She works hard at her job and simply wants her daughter to have success the only way she knows how. Bliss does fall for a cute boy, but her story never becomes about the boy. He’s incidental in her quest for independence. Bliss has a lot of lies to juggle and you know that they will all blow up eventually, but the way it plays out is unexpected. The villainous Iron Maiven (Juliette Lewis), from rival team, The Holy Rollers, is not purely evil. Though she makes things hard for Bliss, she still follows a sort of Roller Girl Code. Even the outcomes of the games are never certain. Things are not black and white here. Like the bruises the girls don as badges of honor, everything is in full, brutal color.
The more I think about it, I can see how the title fits. “Whip It” doesn’t just refer to whipping around the track or whipping a*s. It’s about a girl who must whip herself into shape and grow up. It sounds trite as a tag line, but when Bliss learns to be her own hero, she becomes a better person. Not just a literal and metaphorical a*s-kicker, but also a mature young lady who sees her parents as human beings rather than oppressive wardens. This is a movie that every teenage girl needs to see. Well done, Drew Barrymore. I really didn’t know you had it in you. Also, thanks for sticking to the sidelines, acting-wise. That really helped.