When I sat down to watch Whip It, I was skeptical of whether or not I’d enjoy it. I had previously attempted the Ellen Page-fronted Juno years ago hated – no loathed it. I fit the demographic to a ‘T’: music and film nerd of epic proportions, feminist, sassy and sarcastic – that’s me through and through. The problem I had with Juno lay completely in the writing.
Diablo Cody’s personal background intrigued me. A “riot grrl”, if you will; stripper-turned-screenwriter – I was definitely interested in what she had to say. It turns out that she didn’t have much to say that was of interest to me. The dialogue was painfully forced and juvenile, the band dropping was way over-done, and the mise-en-scene was so faux kitschy that my brain rejected the notion of even trying to take it all in. A person can only take so much hipster-branded irony, and Juno proved to not know where to stop. But what does all of this have to do with Whip It?
Admittedly unjust in my initial reaction upon seeing the trailer for the film, I rejected the idea because it looked like Juno tries roller derby. I expected the same forced dialogue and “look at me, I’m so cool because I know who The Melvins are and have a hamburger phone” attitude that oozed from Juno‘s celluloid. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven dead wrong.
Whip It tells the story of Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year old Texan whose mother wants her to become a beauty queen. Bliss goes to pageant after pageant at her mother’s urging, and never wins. She’s a painfully awkward teen who has one friend and works at the local barbecue joint with her sole friend, Pash, and their manager “Birdman”. One day, during a shopping trip, Bliss sees a roller derby team advertising their next match. After much urging, she and Pash manage to sneak to the match, where Bliss’ world is turned upside down.
I found myself interested in Ellen Page’s painfully shy and awkward Bliss Cavendar. I loved the way she and Brooke Cavendar (Marcia Gay Harden) played off of one another. Don’t we all know what it’s like for our parent(s) to have one wish/hope/dream for us and for us to want to veer off in the completely opposite direction? Even greater than the dynamic between Bliss and her mother, Brooke, was her lone friendship with Pash (Alia Shawkat). It was so nice to see a character completely blossom around her best friend, and without any sort of pressure! These two girls had a very strong relationship, and you could tell without having them to spell it out. I also really enjoyed watching the interactions between the derby ladies. Juliet Lewis really blew her role as ‘Iron Maven’ out of the water. This truly was the best I’ve ever seen her, and probably the only time I’ve actually enjoyed a character that she’s played. Kristen Wig’s ‘Maggie Mayhem’ was lovely and subtle; a nice change from the goofball characters she generally plays. In addition to the characterization, the derby scenes were amazing and so much like every derby match I’ve ever been to. Let’s face it, watching women kick major ass is never dull.
As with almost every film, there was an awful lot about Whip It that I didn’t like. To begin, Bliss’ relationship with small time-attempting-to-make-it-big rocker Oliver (Landon Pigg) felt unnecessary. While I liked the overall portrayal of the relationship, it felt written in solely that we could have an excuse for Bliss and Pash to test their friendship (in the form of a fight, naturally). As with Juno, I didn’t appreciate Whip It’s band name-dropping and the “irony” (Bliss wearing a Stryker tee). I felt some scenes were forced, simply as a means to have characters having an excuse to interact, or as an attempt at forced humor (hot tub scene with Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Johnny Rocket’). I also felt that Drew Barrymore’s ‘Smashley Simpson’ was the most obnoxious and juvenile character, and Eve’s ‘Rosa Sparks’ was merely a token with no real place other than to be the one-liner girl.
Overall, this was a job well-done for first time director Drew Barrymore. While a good bit of the film felt like filler, there was enough substance and weight that it made the extras okay. The actors did a fantastic job of playing off one another and the story was solid. It was truly refreshing to see a film of strong and loving female relationships that didn’t revolve around shopping and men. Whip It is a fantastic example of the types of films that that women and young girls need to see more of; Alison Bechdel would be proud.