Whip It is exactly what you think it is. There’s no move that isn’t telegraphed, no cliché that isn’t exploited, no trope that isn’t mined, no plot line that isn’t predictable. Ellen Page plays Bliss, the nerdy misfit in a podunk Texas town where pageantry is, like, the most important thing ever. She and her friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) bide their time working at a local diner, dreaming of better things. Everything Bliss’s parents (Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern) want for her, she hates. Everything she wants, they either don’t understand or disapprove of. One night she and Pash sneak out and see a live roller derby match. Bliss falls in love with it, tries out, makes the team and becomes one of the Hurl Scouts. She struggles to learn the ropes, competes against their rivals, meets a boy, clashes with her parents, saves the day a few times, has her heart broken, she and her parents learn Very Important Lessons and everyone smiles and laughs in the end as the human spirit triumphs once again.
Was any of that unexpected? The only thing that was unexpected was this: Whip It is actually a hell of a lot of fun. It’s breezy, funny, engaging, and clever. Directed by Drew Barrymore, it’s surprisingly intense, and despite its nonstop use of the Hollywood Coming Of Age/Sports Film Plot-O-Matic, it’s a fine way to spend two hours.
Based on the novel “Derby Girl” by Shauna Cross (who also adapted the screenplay), Whip It works first and foremost because of the players involved. Barrymore, despite directing the picture, takes on a relatively minor role, letting Page do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Ellen Page is as enjoyable here as she was in Juno — she’s smart, spunky, and handles herself admirably. She carries the misfit teen role with aplomb, never over- or under-playing it. Much like with Juno, there will likely be those who complain that the dialogue and her speech patterns are not reflective of high school kids. I call bullshit on that, however. Though it’s been a while since I was a high school kid, Bliss would easily have fit in — or not fit in, as it were — in my school. She’s a delight to watch, and her performance is lifted by the numerous strong supporting turns around her. Particularly, Stern and Harden are marvelous as her parents — I’m convinced that Marcia Gay Harden can now play anyone believably. After seeing her in The Mist, Mystic River, and now this, I can confirm what I’ve long suspected — she’s a stellar and criminally underused actress. Instead of simply playing the Southern momma stereotype, she’s a tough yet vulnerable character. She’s not glamorous — she’s a postal worker in her day job, and she sees Bliss’s pageantry competitions as a chance to get out of Bodeen, much as Bliss sees derby as that same chance. Stern is the sweet, affable, but confrontation-shy father, and he gives a solid performance.
The derby girls are, of course, where the action is. The de facto leader and Bliss’s alternate mother figure is Maggie Mayhem, played by Kristen Wiig. Wiig is finally given the opportunity to give a slightly more dramatic role — not that she isn’t funny as always, but she also gets a take some serious turns, and despite her strange, stilted, almost-monotone delivery, she hits the notes reasonably well. Her team also consists of Smashly Simpson (Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Bloody Holly (Zoë Bell). Their archrivals, The Holy Rollers, featured Juliette Lewis as the chief antagonist, although even she is eventually seen through a sympathetic eye. Rounding out the cast are Landon Pigg as the annoying hipster band-member love interest, Andrew Wilson (brother of Owen and Luke) in a hilariously dry and sardonic turn as their coach, Razor, and Jimmy Fallon as the ring announcer for the derby matches.
As for Drew Barrymore, I’ve never been one of her detractors. She’s always seemed pretty genuine to me, and I appreciate her not capitulating to Hollywood’s body image pressures, both with herself and with her characters. All of that aside, her direction is surprisingly capable. I’m not saying she’s the next Coppola, but she coaxes solid performances out of her stars, and and she somehow managed to make Jimmy Fallon funny and — even more stunning — he’s not irritating. If she can do that, she’s a minor miracle-worker in my book. The real fun comes with the derby scenes, which are fast-paced, hectic and hellaciously fun. I confess to knowing next to nothing about how roller derby works, and after about 20 minutes of Whip It, I found it to be pretty damn entertaining. I realize that it’s likely dramatized, but such is the case in all sports movies. Regardless, it manages to maintain a frenetic pace without resorting to hyperactive editing and too many fast cuts. Instead, we get to actually see the teams careening around the rink (most of the other teammates were comprised of actual roller derby girls), and the physicality of it all is captured perfectly. Barrymore mixes it up nicely, and the dramatic scenes don’t feature too many teary, quivering-lip closeups; instead, she allows the actors to make the scene, giving them room to show their skills. When closeups are called for, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic, which allows for emotionality without an excess of schmaltz. Barrymore’s technique results in scenes feeling natural and organic, without being over-directed or edited to the point of being dizzying.
What’s clearer than anything else is that the actors are having a blast. My feeling has always been that when that happens — when a collection of actors and a director genuinely buy into the material and are actually having a good time — it usually reflects positively in the movie itself. Movies like Oceans 11, From Dusk Til Dawn, and Super Troopers all had that vibe — that everyone was enjoying themselves, and it somehow made the movie seem better.
Whip It is far from the perfect movie — as I mentioned, it follows a painfully familiar routine to almost every sports movie (at least the ones where the hero doesn’t die at the end). The main differences are its unrelenting good spirit, a great sense of humor, and, of course, a sport that’s new to most mainstream viewers. It’s definitely going to turn some viewers off — it has that pseudo-hipster feel to it, full of artfully mussed hairstyles, while numerous bands with ironic names dominate the soundtrack (though I must confess, the music in the movie is pretty killer). If you can’t get past that, then you’ve probably already decided not to like it. Otherwise, faults aside, just sit back and let it knock you around a little.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.