Tired of being pushed into beauty pageants by her parents, Texas teen Bliss finds herself after joining a female roller derby team.
Genres: Comedy and Sports
Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.
Release Date: October 2nd, 2009 (wide)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
||Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis|
||Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore, Peter Douglas|
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a Texas teenager whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden) pushes her along the beauty-pageant circuit, shaking her head and pursing her lips at her daughter’s mild gestures of rebellion. But hair dye and punk rock are only the beginning. Bliss stumbles into the world of competitive women’s roller derby, which improves her self-esteem, brings her some new friends and must be kept secret from her parents. (Dad, played by Daniel Stern, is a laid-back, beer-drinking football fan in a household dominated by women.
If you think you know exactly where this story is going, you’re right. “Whip It,” the directing debut of Drew Barrymore (who shows up now and then as one of Bliss’s big-hearted, hard-riding teammates) is predictable not only in the contours of its plot, but also in nearly every scene and situation.
Bliss’s roller-derby squad, the Hurl Scouts, is a bunch of underachieving misfits with a put-upon coach (Andrew Wilson). Do they suddenly start winning, making an improbable run for the championship? What do you think? Does Bliss have a falling out and a reconciliation with her loyal, flaky best friend (Alia Shawkat)? Does Bliss meet a dreamy boy (Landon Pigg) who plays in a rock ’n’ roll band? Does she learn valuable lessons, experience laughter and tears and grow as a person? Do you have to ask?
You might, nonetheless, want to see this movie, even — or maybe especially — if you have seen “Billy Elliot” or “Bend It Like Beckham.” Familiarity is not always a bad thing, and if the script, by Shauna Cross, piles sports movie and coming-of-age touchstones into a veritable cairn of clichés, the cast shows enough agility and conviction to make them seem almost fresh. (The skating action is also fun to watch, mixing hints of sex and violence without going too far toward either.)
Ms. Page, rotating the “Juno” cool-nerd archetype a few degrees in the nice girl direction of Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles,” is smart, sharp and convincing. Bliss’s pluck is appealing, but the selfishness and insensitivity that are part of any adolescent’s self-defensive armory are also very much in evidence. And Bliss’s mother, Brooke, may start out as a caricature of prim, pathological femininity, but over the course of the movie she grows in interesting directions. The debutante fantasies that hover over her pageant fixation are not pretensions, but rather the aspirations of a tough, hard-working woman (Brooke is a mail carrier) who is ultimately more clued-in and more sympathetic than Bliss gives her credit for being.
Ms. Harden is also just about the only person in the movie, which was shot in Michigan, who sounds at all Texan. (Mr. Stern tries; no one else bothers.) Wherever we’re supposed to be, the revived subculture of roller derby, a cult sport whose rules are helpfully explained by a rink-side announcer played by Jimmy Fallon, comes to exuberant if somewhat fanciful life.
The athletes have tough-sounding pseudonyms (Bliss is called Babe Ruthless), tattoos and a lot of swagger, though their sisterly, sensitive sides have a way of peeking out from behind the sweat and grime. Among the other Hurl Scouts are the rapper Eve, the stunt performer Zoe Bell (who nearly drove away with Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”) and Kristen Wiig, who seems to be battling Jason Bateman and Jonah Hill for a most ubiquitous supporting actor nomination. (They’re not in this one, by the way.)
The leader of the rival squad, Iron Maven, Bliss’s nemesis, is played by Juliette Lewis, whose scenes with Ms. Page have an extra dimension of pop-culture resonance, since Ms. Lewis was the Ellen Page of an earlier era. They settle it all in a big food fight, some rough-and-tumble skating throw downs and of course a girl-to-girl heart-to-heart.
“Whip It” has an easygoing spirit, a lightness of touch in spite of occasional excursions into melodrama, that makes it hard to mock and easy to like. It will not change the way you think about movies, roller derby or the relations between teenage girls and their mothers, friends or dreams. But it does invite you to stop and appreciate all those things.
“Whip It” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some sex and some mayhem, most of it good, clean fun.