Without a doubt, Drew Barrymore’s Whip It is the finest film ever made about roller derby. It’s also movie-comfort food at its finest. By that I mean that Whip It doesn’t do one single thing that will surprise you. There is no turn of the plot (well, maybe one) that you can’t predict. But in this case, that’s not a criticism. This is a movie that’s designed to do what you want it to do—if it did otherwise, you’d feel cheated. And it does what you want very well. That it also proves that there’s more to its star, Ellen Page, than Juno (2007) is a nice bonus.
The movie stars Page as Bliss Cavendar, a young woman with a mind of her own, and Marcia Gay Harden, as a mother with a mind made up for her. Mom is determined to push Bliss through beauty pageants various and sundry, despite her daughter’s notable lack of enthusiasm—not to mention her basic unsuitable mind-set regarding pageant ideals. Bliss’ father (Daniel Stern) is somewhat of a distracted figure, who isn’t interested in arguing with his wife. Bliss’s little sister (Harden’s real-life daughter Eulala Scheel), on the other hand, is exactly what Mom wants in a pageant-winner daughter, making Bliss even more of an outsider. Life is hemmed in by this and by living in the one-eyed town of Bodeen, Texas. All Bliss has going for her is a best friend, Pash (Alia Shwakat, Bart Got a Room), whom she works with at a barbecue joint festooned with the world’s ugliest giant pig statue.
Everything changes when Bliss happens upon a handbill for the roller derby in Austin and decides to go. She’s so transfixed by the sport that she tells one of the players, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), that these women are her heroes, to which Maggie advises, “Become your own hero,” and invites her to try out. Almost against her better judgment, she does—and soon discovers a natural talent for the game. After lying about her age, she gets on the team and helps bring them out of the basement they’ve inhabited for some considerable time. And, of course, she finds herself in the process—along with something like romance and all that goes with it, including the problems.
A good deal of this is on the far side of believability. That Bliss manages to keep her parents from finding out what’s going on for as long as she does requires a significant stretch of credulity. But things like this matter little in the scheme of this kind of movie. After all, this is a story geared toward the idea of finding yourself and finding out that almost everyone is a better person than you probably think they are. It’s filled with vignettes and touches that bring that second part home, and its refreshingly unjaded look at humanity is not something I’m prepared to sneer at.
Barrymore proves herself a solid, if perhaps not quite inspired, director in her first effort. The fact that she so obviously likes and respects her characters has much to do with this, but she also keeps things moving at a nice pace. More, she manages to shoot coherent action in the roller-derby scenes and make the sport reasonably understandable in the bargain. That’s more than at least 75 percent of her seasoned male counterparts seem to be capable of doing these days.
Sure, you can dismiss Whip It as predictable, and you wouldn’t be wrong. You can say it’s just a movie aimed at teenage girls, too, I suppose. But when you factor in that it’s an enjoyable and intelligent film aimed at teenage girls, it’s something else again. To fully understand its worth, try comparing it to Twilight (2008), and it becomes a small masterpiece. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including crude dialogue, language and drug material.