BIFF 14: Whip It (US 2009)

Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and Bliss (Ellen Page) – fierce rivals.

I chose this screening to see a) if Ellen Page would confirm her stardom and b) whether Drew Barrymore could turn her successful producing experience into an effective directorial role. The answers are yes and possibly, but not quite yet.

Whip It (the title comes from a move in roller derby) tells the tale of Bliss (Page), an oddly-named 17 year-old in the small Texas town of Bodeen who is looking for excitement and something that will take her away from her mother’s obsession with local beauty pageants. When Bliss comes across a flyer for a women’s roller derby league in Austin she decides to visit with her friend Pash. Undaunted by the violence and aggression associated with the sport, and lying about her age, Bliss decides to try out for the team. Does she succeed? What will she tell her mom? Will she meet a boy? Is this a teen pic?

Well, yes it is a teen pic and many of the conventions of the youth picture are indeed gleefully explored. But though the plot follows a similar trajectory to Bend it Like Beckham it also has several proper indie elements and as well as Ellen Page’s own back catalogue it draws on Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World and on both sides of Drew Barrymore’s more extensive back catalogue (e.g. Donnie Darko and Charlie’s Angels).

Bliss with Oliver (Landon Pigg)

Ellen Page is definitely a star. She is in nearly every scene and when she shares the frame I find myself more often than not watching her at the expense of the other actors. There are some echoes of Juno in Bliss, but this young woman is less brashly confident, less smart-mouthed, while at the same time just as assertive. In some ways, the family set-up is similar to Juno‘s with a sensible father who sides with his older daughter (there is a younger daughter as well – as in Juno) and a mother with an obsessive hobby (beauty pageant as against dogs). The main difference is that Bliss is a year older than Juno with a more interesting best friend and, through her involvement with the roller derby team, a wider range of young(ish) women to learn from. This is the strength of the film and I’ve seen several commentators remarking that Whip It offers a real alternative to young women who might otherwise be wrapped up in the fantasies of mainstream teen pictures. Pash works with Bliss at the Oink fast food (pork) diner, but she is going to get into Columbia or Johns Hopkins. The women on the roller derby team have a good time together and in some respects represent ideas about ‘third wave feminism‘. They also drink, frolic in the hot tub and have food fights. The team is coached by a man, but he is not the ‘dominant controller’ (a great performance by Andrew Wilson). Bliss has a romance in the film, but she remains in control. And crucially, the relationship between Bliss and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden, also terrific) is developed towards the end of the film. This was also there in Juno, but in more of a pat, smart way. For Page, also, I think that it is important that she literally throws herself into a role that requires her to skate and get barged off the track. I’ve seen comments that her skating is not convincing, but for non-experts (i.e. most of us) I think it’s OK. It’s always good to be thought of ‘trouper’ who can muck in as an actor, rather than just as someone who can deliver smart quips.

Ellen Page as 'Babe Ruthless' on the track.

Perhaps the comparison with Juno is also important in trying to decide about Drew Barrymore’s producer-director role. However much I liked Juno – and I’ve now seen the film several times – there is still the feeling that it is a clever film, smartly scripted and tightly directed, that just possibly is too good to be true. By comparison Whip It is, at the same time, more ‘open’ and more ‘safe’/conventional. It seems somehow ‘baggier’. I think it could lose a few minutes from its 112 and the ending could be tightened a little. On the other hand, it’s nice not to have a clever ending. On the way out of the screening, a colleague said that they had enjoyed the film, thought it was great for teenage girls but wanted it to be a bit edgier – and I think that’s right. Barrymore brings to the film a very strong commitment to ‘girls having fun together’, some great casting (Juliette Lewis especially, but Eve is not given enough to do) and good direction of her actors. She is also a good sport, playing the character who gets hit most often in the team. The script is by Shauna Cross from her own novel about the roller derby business. The more I research the film, the more it seems that there is a more interesting story lurking somewhere in the background. Perhaps it’s just another Juno coincidence that Cross, like Diablo Cody, has written about her experiences in an entertainment industry activity that attracts both criticism and fan support.

The official website has links to some roller derby material – although I found it more interesting to explore the topic on Wikipedia. It does, however, play some of the music and this is another strength of the film. In fact, the music was the cause of my main complaint about the festival screening since the Cineworld projectionist cut off the end of the credits, meaning that I not only missed the song listing, but also another clip – the end credit sequence is worth staying for, I understand. Whip It is released in the UK on April 7 and this is one strange North American sport that is worth catching up on. Drew Barrymore might not be quite there as a director but she’s very close and I look forward to her next one.

Here she is promoting the film:

And here’s Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat (Pash)

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