I don't know jack about roller derby, but that's okay, because in a sixty-second sequence the rules are explained, after Ellen Page's Bliss Cavender raises her hand and asks at tryouts. By the end of Drew Barrymore's Whip It (2009), knowing the rules of the game is really non-essential, although watching the fantastically-shot roller derby sequences is a lot of fun (Zoe Bell, as Bloody Holly, is amazing to watch in action). Whip It is a wholly positive film about fitting in, finding a family, and figuring out what's important in life.
Bodeen, Texas: the boys have got football and Pearl beer; the old folks have got bingo; and the ladies have the beauty pageants. Brooke Cavender (Marcia Gay Harden) is doing the vicarious-living bit with her two daughters, younger Shania and seventeen-year-old Bliss (Ellen Page). The first scene of the three together, exiting a local pageant, says all: Former-queen Brooke walks proudly side-by-side with little Shania, holding an obscenely large trophy, while older Bliss shuffles behind with her eye-catching, blue hair looking a little towards the ground. The local diner, where Bliss works with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), serves a huge pork sandwich, entitled "The Squealer," which is free if eaten in under three minutes. In a small town gossip moves quickly and some of Bliss's more popular schoolmates come into the diner to tease her about the blue-hair pageant fiasco. At the local mall, where Brooke is taking her daughters shopping, Bliss wants a pair of boots from the head shop, but Brooke gets embarrassed after commenting on the pretty "vases" under the counter. Three young ladies roller skate into the shop, with brightly-colored hair, piercings, and tattoos, and leave fliers for a roller derby event in Austin on Friday. Bliss takes one before leaving (with her boots).
Austin, Texas: Bliss and Pash make the trek to the roller derby and have a blast. Bliss even catches the eye of young rocker, Oliver (Landon Pigg), and the two develop a romantic relationship over the course of Whip It. The most important person Bliss meets is Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Viig), who plays for the "Hurl Scouts" team and encourages Bliss to tryout for the league. Bliss pulls her Barbie skates out of the attic and hits the asphalt to practice.
As Whip It unfolds, Bliss finds the family and acceptance that she wants in the Austin counter-culture and roller derby league that wishes she had back in Bodeen. Wiig's Maggie becomes a close friend, older sister, and even a sometimes mother to Bliss. Wigg is incredibly endearing in her role and she really makes a strong impression with her performance. Her scenes with Page are heartfelt and feel real: these two aren't too cool to avoid talking directly to each other about their feelings. The rest of Bliss's teammates, Rosa Sparks (Eve), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), and Bell's Holly really rally around Bliss's energy and enthusiasm. They all develop a deep sisterly kinship and support for one another. Even Whip It's bad girl, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis in a great performance) is drawn to her competitive spirit; and despite her teasing, Bliss doesn't really find anything at all wrong with her new home in Austin.
Despite the solace Bliss finds in Austin, the real drama of Whip It takes place back in Bodeen with mom, Brooke, and dad, Earl (Daniel Stern). In the very brief scenes which Barrymore shows Brooke and Earl together and alone or apart and alone, the scenes speak loudly. Stern's Earl watches his neighbor's sons toss a football in their front yard, while his neighbor proudly watches his two sons. Bliss catches her mom making her rounds quietly as a postal carrier, possibly with the image in her mind of a once-beauty queen working hard to make a better life for her two daughters (even though Bliss doesn't share her dream). Harden is one of the finest actresses currently working in America today, and she gives a stellar performance. Barrymore also takes time to focus on Bliss and Pash's friendship, and Shawkat is excellent in her role. The screenplay by Shauna Cross (based on her novel) doesn't take the easy way out: Bliss has to come to terms with her Bodeen life before she can move on to her new life in Austin. Barrymore could just coast on the comedy and the roller derby scenes (which are a lot of fun and infectious), as the trailer emphasizes, but she and Cross take the time to add genuine emotion to the drama. The attention to detail in character and development in Whip It is equal to its attention to visuals and locations. The performances (especially Page who gives another brilliant turn after Juno), the direction, and the screenplay are what make Whip It memorable.
Whip It was, for me, as much fun as Greg Mottola's Adventureland (2009) (which also has a performance from Wiig). A little film that deserves a lot of attention and is one of my favorites of this year. See it.