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Non-Review Review: Whip It

Whip It is sort of an inverse version of the Billy Elliot story. In that film, a young boy horrifies his family by wanting to practice ballet. In this film, a young woman shocks her mother by becoming a roller derby celebrity. Featuring the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, Whip It is a fairly formulaic and straightforward little coming-of-age and self-discovery movie with a quirky angle and a plucky protagonist, but it’s also rather well handled and quite charming.

Whipping the team into shape...

Whip It offers a fairly standard criticism of the suffocating nature of small town life, the constant pressure to conform and the pain of being a social outcast. Bliss is a young woman living out her mother’s dreams on the small-town beauty circuit, but also struggling to find her own voice. This is a banal little world, populated with shallow people making vacuous observations like, “If I could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be God. Because it’s true what they say… God is great.” This is a community where eating “the Squealer” under the time limit (and thus skipping the bill) is a big event for people. “It’s free bitches, it’s free!” the guy declares like he’s just won the superbowl.

It’s populated with angry and judgemental people. “So, what are you, like, alternative now?” one of Bliss’ old friends goads her as the young woman tries to take an order at the quite little rest stop where she works. Because it’s entirely unfathomable to anybody else that he might not necessarily be trying to be anything other than whoever she wants to be. Bliss finds herself struggling against he mother’s “psychotic idea of 50s womanhood”, eventually by signing up with roller derby, a sport handily explained with a nice little diagram for us crazy Europeans.

Blades of glory...

What follows is a fairly straight-forward little journey of self-discovery. Anybody who has spent any amount of time in a cinema knows the story beats. Bliss discovers her sense of self-worth, becomes assertive, alienates her family, covers up what she’s actually doing, and finds her own wishes conflicting with the path her mother has mapped out for her. The film is slavishly devoted to form, even going as far to saddle Bliss with a completely unnecessary love interest, who is relatively disconnected from the main plot.

In fairness, what I liked about it, and a lot of what the movie has going for it, is the fact that movie has put a decent amount of thought into what it’s doing. It actually points out repeatedly that Bliss is right to want to follow her dreams, but lying to her family and refusing to actually tackle the conflicts is a very selfish thing to do. Similarly, it picks apart the sort of shallow romances that these sorts of tales need. I am actually really glad to see a film where the lead doesn’t need a lover in their life to feel complete, and where it is entirely possible for the lead to meet somebody who isn’t “the one” on a journey of self-discovery (however much it might seem like it).

Its a standard coming-of-age tale, made to order...

More than that, though, a lot of the movie’s charm stems from the simple fact that it follows the formula really well. There’s nothing wrong with adopting a particular model for your film, the real test is how you execute it. Barrymore handles the technical stuff – for example the roller derby scenes – really well, but she distinguishes herself with her casting. Marcia Gay Harden finds herself cast in what may be becoming her stereotypical role as prudish small-town woman, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t very good at it. Barrymore herself and Jimmy Fallon lend some starpower to the film, Kristen Wiig is solid as ever and Juliette Lewis is as much fun to watch as she always is.

Ellen Page plays this sort of lead role in her sleep. Indeed, the character feels as though she could almost be a close relation to Juno. Still, I’m just delighted to see Daniel Stern given a nice meaty role as her father. Stern is one of those actors seen all too rarely of late, which is a shame, because he’s a solid supporting comedic actor. You could certainly do a lot worse. I actually thought that the character of Razor sounded uncannily like Owen Wilson, so I was surprised to look up the cast list and find that Andrew Wilson is in fact Owen’s older brother. Which, hilariously, made the scene where he explained roller derby even more like the scene in The Fantastic Mr. Fox where Owen Wilson’s character explained whack-ball. Complete with accompanying illustration.

Whip It good!

Whip it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. In fact, it’s as standard as coming-of-age tale as you are likely to find. Still, it has enough of its own spirit and is handled with enough skill to make it worth a glimpse, if you can find the time.

2 Responses

  1. Whip It really underwhelmed me; nobody here seems to be on except for Wiig, with Page kind of flip-flopping back and forth between being engaging and just phoning it in as Bliss using her staple bag of tricks. Maybe if Bliss felt a little more separate from someone like Juno, I’d be able to appreciate her story more, but you have to wonder at some point how many teenage girls out there are just like her and then demand that other girls have their stories told instead.

    It’s not a bad film, or even an incompetent one, just kind of a timid one in which the director doesn’t quite push as hard as she should have to really make the story and characters sing.

    • I suppose you have a point. I don’t think it’s a great film, but I did enjoy it and didn’t end up wishing for hours of my life back – I thought there were funny bits, even if a lot of it did feel… “workman-like” I suppose.

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