Whip It (review)

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Good Bliss Hunting

I always knew Drew Barrymore could be this cool: her directorial debut is a simultaneously sweet and kickass story about one girl’s finding her bliss, a movie that works within Hollywood conventions of storytelling to handily demonstrate that just because a tale is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be fresh and funny and edgy, too.
Ellen Page, in a performance so radically different from her turns in Juno and Hard Candy that she has now surely cemented her place as the best young actress working today, is the ironically named Bliss Cavendar, a Texas high schooler from a small “armpit of a town” who couldn’t be less blissful. Shy and nervous and “alternative,” though she’s so naive she doesn’t realize her conformist peers are taunting her when they dub her thus, she’s exactly wrong for the beauty pageant circuit her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden: The Mist, Into the Wild), has her making the rounds of. But then she discovers the world of tournament women’s roller derby in nearby Austin, and before long she is sneaking into town with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), for team auditions, then practices, then tournaments. She’s lying to Mom and Dad (Daniel Stern: A Previous Engagement, Very Bad Things), meets a cute boy (Landon Pigg), ends up alienating Pash, sees it all work out in the long run, and learns all sorts of things about herself along the way.

The arc of Bliss’s metaphoric journey from is recognizable — it’s the little details that make the movie sing with the authority that announces the arrival of a filmmaker to watch… and that makes it such awesome good fun. Shauna Cross’s screenplay (based on her own novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]) smartly makes Bliss’s mother — who does not, of course, approve of this dangerous derby stuff once she learns about it — nothing like the total villain a more cartoonish version of this same story would have her, but a woman with her own secrets and passions; Harden is always a treat to watch, but especially here, and particularly in how Brooke’s relationship with her husband lets us know from the first that she is as passionate a woman as her daughter is turning out to be.

But hoorah for Barrymore! She’s made a movie that is somehow pleasant and prickly at the same time, one full of personality and energy and yet reeling with an effervescent wistfulness too, capturing the uncertainty and exhilaration of those last stages of adolescence when you’re finally starting to get the hang of yourself.

And even more to cheer: this is a movie not just about a young woman — so hard to come by in tolerable form these days — but one about lots of women. Lots of different women. The skaters Bliss encounters in the derby world are a wild bunch of tough, cool, strong, vulnerable women, all doing their stuff together or in opposition but with a rancor that is so good-natured that it cannot help but rub off on you. (The good-naturedness, that is, not the rancor. It’s hard to imagine anyone hating this movie.) The rest of the cast list reads like who’s who of splendidly animated and vivacious women: Kristen Wiig (Extract, Adventureland), Zoe Bell (Gamer, Death Proof), Juliette Lewis (Catch and Release, Starsky & Hutch), Eve (Barbershop 2: Back in Business, XXX), Barrymore herself (Lucky You, Curious George), all portraying a spectrum of cool derby chicks with names like “Maggie Mayhem” and “Bloody Holly” that perfectly embody their spirit and humor. (There are guys worth mentioning, too: Andrew Wilson [Idiocracy, Fever Pitch], brother to Owen and Luke, is delightful as their coach.)

Barrymore directs all the zippy skating action with breathtaking aplomb — and she handles the sequence in which the rules of roller derby are explained with such easy grace that you’ll forget to remember that it’s an info dump… and you’ll forget you never understood the rules in the first place, she makes it seem so intuitive.

“I am in love with this,” Bliss has to insist to her mother when Brooke wants her to give it up. That’s how I feel about this flick, too: I’m in love with it, and in love with the fact that it got made at all. More like this, please.

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Thu, Oct 01, 2009 8:51am

Great to hear Maryann.

Being 23 year old male, i’ve got plenty of buddies who scoff at my suggestion that we see this film. Too bad for them, i’m planning on cashing in the movie-going favour they owe me for enduring Jennifer’s Body with them. ;)

Thu, Oct 01, 2009 8:59am

YAY! I can’t wait.

bats :[
Thu, Oct 01, 2009 3:53pm

Flat-track Roller Derby rocks! I hope this movie and contemporary roller derby leagues around the country benefit each other. (Go, Tucson’s Furious Truckstop Waitresses!)

Thu, Oct 01, 2009 7:00pm

So cool! My girlfriend is a derby girl, and some of her friends were extras in this movie. We’ve been so looking forward to seeing it!

Go derby!

Sat, Oct 03, 2009 2:33pm

“Barrymore directs all the zippy skating action with breathtaking aplomb…”

Yes! There are so many beautiful beautiful shots. One I remember particularly well is the one where Barrymore’s character breaks through everyone to get to the girl who threw her against the rail. Oh man, the shot was gorgeous. I felt sick with excitement.

james herod
james herod
Thu, Oct 08, 2009 12:26am

Whip It – This film is one of the milder examples, but it still falls within the genre, of Hollywood’s vulgar feminism. Genuine feminism is the struggle for gender equality. The guiding principle of vulgar feminism is “It’s Our Turn” or “Women on Top,” that is, role reversal. There are worse examples, like Volver or Waitress, and many much worse than even those. In vulgar feminist films most (sometimes all) the men or boys in the movie are shown in a negative light, quite often in a very negative light. And so it is with Whip It. Bliss’ co-worker at the café, Birdman, when we first meet him, is being ridiculed by her and her friend Pash for having put on airs after having been promoted to manager. This man is a zero when it comes to personality. Yet the women are vivacious and interesting. They dance and sing behind the counter. He stands there like a statue, excluded. They are alive, but he is wooden, throughout the movie. Yet in the end Pash, the friend, kisses him. Another role reversal. More often than not nowadays the woman initiates the kiss. And guess what? He stands there stunned, just like women used to do when kissed by the man they adored. Then there is the father, another hopeless case. Plus he has to hide out in the van to watch football because his wife won’t allow it at home. Remember all the outrage when a wife was shown having to sneak around to do something her husband disapproved of? It’s Our Turn. Throughout the film there are little scenes that denigrate men, like the total jerk of a jock who ate the squealer in three minutes, like the big teenager who was hosing down two little boys, like the guy whom they caught making out who grabbed his crotch in an obscene gesture, like the waiter at the hot tub, all of which scenes were greeted with grimaces of disapproval by the women. The neighbor next door, the man in the yard, was just a prop. Then there was the boy friend, Oliver, who turned out to be, of course, of course, a no-good-for-nothing two-timer. The clincher though was the little boy in the back seat, the son of one of the team members. He was not allowed a single word, not one spoken word, just a few grunts. Compare this to the younger sister of Fanny in Bright Star, who was a fully developed personality, while Fanny’s brother was just a wooden stick, a prop, who spoke not one word during the entire film (maybe one). Or how about this for a role reversal: Oliver, big lanky Oliver, riding piggy back on Bliss, little skinny Bliss, half his size. This is what feminists are fighting for? The portrayal of Razor, the coach, was not a put down. He acted pretty much like coaches act, and evidently it was accepted that a women’s team be coached by a man. But this was the only non-belittling role in the entire film for men or boys. Such movies are of course interesting and fun to watch. But they are politically regressive not progressive.

Vegetarian Bodybuilding
Thu, Oct 08, 2009 10:23pm

Great movie…really like the review…am surprised that drew barrymore could produce something like this

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 10:46pm

@james herod: Now, perhaps, you understand how women have felt lo these many years…

If *Whip It* is “vulgar,” so be it. I don’t think it is. I don’t think it shows the men in a negative light. It just doesn’t make them the center of attention. I’m sorry if that stings, but it’s not always about you, even if the world has told you that it was so regularly before.

Fri, Oct 09, 2009 2:43am

I’m not sure how the father having to hide out to watch football puts him in the negative light. And what James wrote about Pash seems like a reasonable enough character; some people are like that, with nothing in their own lives but work while they are surrounded by more interesting people. There should be more women like Pash.

Fri, Oct 09, 2009 11:27am

@James: would you care to unpack your remarks about “Volver”? I mean, I hold no brief for feminism of the “Two legs good, three legs bad” kind, nor yet the “One bad woman in a cast of twenty is misogyny, nineteen bad men in a cast of twenty is social realism” kind — and yet even I don’t see why “Volver” should be vulgar, or about reversals, or about it being Their Turn. To me the film was saying, not “All men are crap” but “Here is a story about five particular women that I’d like to tell you”. It’s not the same thing at all.

james herod
james herod
Sat, Oct 10, 2009 7:50am

Grinebiter: You asked me to unpack my remarks about Volver. I place this film in the category of “vulgar feminism” because of its extreme elimination of men from any presence in the film and the negative portrayal of those who are in it. Only four men have brief speaking roles in the film, all interacting with Raimunda (except for one scene between Paco and Paula, and not counting the man on the phone inquiring about the restaurant for sale): the clerk in the hardware store whose eyes drop to ogle Raimunda’s breasts; the manager of the film crew who leers at her and has to be told to stop; the restaurant owner who expresses disappointment that his interest in her was not returned; and Paco the abusive husband. None of the other five women ever speak to a man. There were men at the funeral and men with the film crew, but no interaction with any of them. No men friends, neighbors, brothers, cousins. So what was the film about? Desertion, rape, infidelity, incest, and murder. Paco, the husband, was murdered by Paula, the daughter, for attempted rape. Raimunda’s father was murdered by her mother Irene for infidelity and incest. Sole’s husband evidently deserted her. Agustina’s father is not there. So this is a story of these five wonderful women coping with the destructive impact of the awful men in their lives. Fine. But isn’t this painting it a little thick? There is not a decent man anywhere in these women’s lives? The subtext of most all “vulgar (fake, inauthentic, mainstream) feminist” films is: men are awful; women are wonderful.

Sat, Oct 10, 2009 9:34am

About Paco there is no question, of course, but I don’t remember the film crew manager or the restaurant owner as being portrayed as nasty guys. Their scarlet sins failed somehow to register with me. That might be because I don’t see how it is possible not at least to notice Raimunda’s well-displayed breasts, and because I am not convinced that such brief ocular harassment is so serious an actionable tort in Spain. The women themselves joke about her boobs. Nor did it occur to me that expressing polite disappointment that a lady does not return your interest should be the mark of Cain; though in some quarters it might well considered so, ghod help us all.

Maybe it’s a matter of tone: your factual synopsis of the family drama seems more or less okay, but in the hands of another writer/director the same material might be far more tediously screechy. With a Greek chorus in case we missed the point. Somehow, however, Almodóvar made the interactions between the women so interesting in themselves that I wholly failed to care about the absence of the men. Maybe that’s what makes him great?

Or perhaps it was because none of the women appear to hate men as such; they have known monsters, certainly, but seem to be holding open the possibility that the next man they meet might be a good guy, just as they are aware that the next woman they meet might be a nasty piece of work. Maybe the individualistic and sociable Spanish are less prone to think in categories than we are, with our puritan heritage — oops, now I’m doing it too. :-)

So you’re right as far as you go: there are indeed no decent men occupying centre stage in these women’s lives, and yet Almodóvar never gave me the sense that there could never be — they are, he might say, a story for another day. Well, that was my gut response; and this from a person who is in general quite prickly about female chauvinism.

james herod
james herod
Sun, Oct 11, 2009 11:32pm

Grinebiter. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You made many good points. I’m taking them to heart. Perhaps I’ve become too sensitive to the inversions of what I should perhaps be calling “debased,” “corrupted,” “perverted,” or “co-opted” feminism (away from the goal of gender equality), rather than “vulgar,” a phrase I probably adopted from the expression “vulgar marxism.” The film set off these alarms. But of course I agree that it was an engrossing film. A friend commented on my blurb on the movie, saying that I had overlooked that the setting was catholic Spain, and that the central crime, from which everything else evolved, was the original incest with the resulting pregnancy, which could not be openly acknowledged, and which probably forced Raimunda to marry to cover it up, with all the subsequent misery. And so it was very much an exclusively woman’s story, which was barely told even amongst themselves, let alone in the larger community. Still, this was a work of contemporary fiction, in a contemporary movie, and warped feminism is a powerful force. Why this story? And why this way of treating it? But I will take it off my list of objectionable movies.

Mon, Oct 12, 2009 3:23am

@ James: I am naturally familiar with “vulgar Marxism”, and “vulgar Freudianism”, although I myself tend to say “cod-Freudianism”, but if you are the only person using the term “vulgar feminism”, there is a serious danger that no one will understand you.

An off-the-peg solution you might consider instead is the distinction between “equity (or equality) feminism” and “victim feminism”. Another is between “feminism” on the one hand and “female chauvinism” on the other hand. There are plenty of women who call themselves feminists while coming down hard on both eternal victimhood (lack of female agency) and female chauvinism. They don’t think that essentialist self-satisfaction and claims to superior rationality/ morality/ spiritual value are any more attractive in a woman than in an old-style man. But I reckon we can agree now that “Volver” doesn’t map to this schema, it’s not making quasi-theological statements about male and female, it’s a story of a group of women dealing with the hand life has dealt them.

Tue, Oct 13, 2009 4:51pm

I really enjoyed Whip It – not only was it a lot of fun, but it had some heart, too. I think this is one of those movies that will slowly develop a cult following, regardless of its box office numbers.

The presence of Ellen Page + the soundtrack + the silly premise got me interested in checking out Whip It, and it exceeded expectations. Juliette Lewis was amazing, and surprisingly, Kristen Wiig was also excellent, straying from her annoying nervous character that she always seems to do.

Still, the highlight of the film for me is the music, especially since Drew Barrymore used “Unattainable” by Little Joy – that was my favorite song of 2008, and it was great to hear it (along with a host of other great songs) get more exposure.

Sam Kaufman
Wed, Oct 14, 2009 2:16am

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