Whip It (2009): ***½
Directed by Drew Barrymore
This really is a joy of a movie. It's a fun little
flick about girls beating up on each other, and how that toughness
makes them grow, but it has a genuine sweetness that isn't cloying,
and an intelligence that is real and clever.
The beats of the story are anything but original. There's a girl
(played by Juno's Ellen Page) named Bliss who lives in
a small town with an overbearing mother, in this case one who wants
Bliss to become a pageant queen. Really wants. Bliss doesn't really
want that, but is otherwise aimless. She works at a diner with her
best friend, Pash. Like the Little Mermaid, she dreams of something
But instead of a handsome prince showing up and sweeping her off
her feet, Bliss happens to see a couple of roller derby girls dropping
off fliers at a shoe store. She is instantly smitten by their confidence,
strength, and camaraderie. She knows her mother won't approve, but
she pockets a flier and sneaks off with Pash just to take in one
So, yeah, we pretty much know how this story is going to play out.
And there is very little surprising about the plot. But what did
surprise me was how intelligently each of the characters are portrayed
(apart from some comedy relief characters like Drew Barrymore's
spacey and comically violent "Smashley Simpson" rollergirl).
When Bliss and her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) have their predictable
confrontation, the choice of words and attack strategies by each
character are miles above your average sports movie dialogue. These
are characters who really know each other, know how to push each
other's buttons, and realize when it's too late and they've gone
Ellen Page just seems a natural for playing intelligent young women.
I wonder if she could be convincing as a brainless bimbo? But it
would be such a waste of such a good actress. This is a different
role than Juno; Juno started out full of confidence and spit and
vinegar whereas Bliss discovers her own inner fire by strapping
on skates and getting the crap beat out of her.
I was really pleased that the romantic subplot didn't overwhelm
the movie and, indeed, is played pretty much as an unnecessary distraction
to Bliss's character arc. I get fed up with movies about girls who
are completely defined by their relationship with boys, and Whip
It does not trip into that pitfall at all.
The supporting cast including Harden are all also very good. Especially
surprising was a rather serious role from Daniel Stern as the poor
guy who loves his daughter dearly but really wishes there were some
other male in the household with whom he could watch football. Alia
Shawkat is all adorable freckles and fun teenage bravado as Bliss's
more daring but less careful best friend Pash. Juliette Lewis is
scary and gross as main derby rival Iron Maven, who finds Bliss's
surprising successes to be threatening. But even she has a sweeter
side. After all, she was Bliss at one point in her life. Andrew
Wilson (older brother of Luke & Owen) is all crazy, bearded
charm as the team's long-suffering coach. Kristen Wiig is sympathetic
and real as a character who Bliss sees as an alternate mother-figure.
Even Jimmy Fallon has good fun as the announcer "Hot Tub"
Johnny Rocket, so-named because he has a hot tub that the girls
no longer allow him to enter.
The movie is full of moments of charm and humor and great energy.
It is a comedy, but one that is based (mostly) on the interactions
of strange but realistic characters. It has a great grrrl power
vibe that is fun and liberating. Drew Barrymore turns out to have
as confident, gentle, and sweet a hand in directing as you would
expect from her. Whip It is as adorable as one of Drew Barrymore's