Barrymore's enjoyable "Whip It" offers a positive message
So from the film’s outset, we know Page’s character, Bliss Cavendar, is at odds with the life in which she finds herself. And while this coming-of-age story can hardly be called groundbreaking, the movie’s details, humor, energy and charm make “Whip It” pretty satisfying.
Bliss, a small-town Texas teen, is pushed into the world of tiaras and sashes by her former pageant queen, postal carrier mother (Marcia Gay Harden). But while on a shopping trip to Austin — where Bliss and her mother butt heads about purchasing boots at a head shop — Bliss sees tattooed, brash members of a local roller derby team and falls instantly in love.
After she watches the team compete, she tries out and makes the cut for the Hurl Scouts. But since her lies have to become more elaborate to hide her new life — as well as her budding relationship with rock band musician Oliver (Landon Pigg) — from her parents, her happiness becomes more and more precarious.
Some “suspension of disbelief” must occur while watching almost any movie, of course, but “Whip It” really pushes the bounds at times. Though the story’s set in Texas, everyone sounds vaguely Midwestern (Daniel Stern, playing Bliss’ father, and Harden both make small gestures toward an accent, but that’s about it); Bliss progresses from being barely able to stand on skates to being one of the fastest at the derby time trials only days later; and for a girl trying to keep a secret, Bliss recklessly does speed work on neighborhood streets and around her family’s cul-de-sac at night. (Even if her parents weren’t home, wouldn’t the neighbors notice and possibly blow her cover?)
Barrymore also includes an underwater love scene between Page and Pigg that’s beautifully shot but logistically troubling. You know, one of those passionate movie images that you watch while thinking, “That looks hot — until you rush up for a breath and nearly choke every few seconds.”
Even so, these minor quibbles are easily overlooked for the sake of enjoying the best “Whip It” has to offer —Â and fortunately, there are many things on that list.
Screenwriter Shauna Cross, who wrote the novel that’s the basis for the film (“Derby Girl”), makes most of the film’s central characters both sympathetic and culpable. The parents aren’t oversimplified villains; Bliss’ younger sister Shania (played by Harden’s daughter Eulala Scheel), who loves and succeeds at pageants, isn’t mocked for her ambitions; and as likable a heroine as Bliss is, she’s not without significant flaws and blind spots.
Page, whose breakthrough came via her Oscar-nominated turn in “Juno,” seems to be making a career of playing wiseacre adolescents who eventually learn that they don’t know as much as they thought they did; perhaps that’s because almost no one in the business does it better right now. Page perfectly captures the heartbreaking mix of hubris and insecurity, naivety and cynicism that is the essence of being a contemporary teen.
“Whip It”’s nice surprise, however, is “Saturday Night Live” star Kristen Wiig, who plays Page’s teammate Maggie. Wiig’s talent for comedy has long been obvious, but she also shows some acting chops when Maggie gives Bliss, after she leaves home, a gentle reality check.
Harden, meanwhile, has the difficult task of being a pushy pageant mom without veering into caricature. She pulls it off, in part thanks to an scene in which Bliss hollowly claims, “I support myself,” and Harden, her words like slow bullets, says, “You do not. You buy shoes.” Now, that's a mom I believe in.
Jimmy Fallon, Eve and others have throwaway roles that suggest they were just along for the ride (though Barrymore’s cheeky performance as ditzy bruiser Smashley Simpson is a lot of fun). And the film’s bad guy (or girl, more accurately), played by Juliette Lewis, feels over-the-top.
Some of the film's derby action sequences would have benefited from more clarity, but Barrymore, to her credit, keeps the film's sweet, funny story moving without sacrificing its details or trading in sentimentality.
Thankfully, “Whip It” doesn’t go for the obvious, too-easy Hollywood ending, but instead respects its audience and its heroine enough to stay more grounded. Perhaps even more importantly, the film encourages young girls to “be your own hero” — and in this age of highly questionable role models, I can’t think of better advice.
Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.