October 18, 2009

Whip It

At Adventures of a Young Feminist, Laura writes "I'm not even going to try to pretend I didn't love this movie, because I did." You and me both, Laura. It's been a long time coming, my friends, but the Hollywood woman-hating machine has presented us with something that is both fun and not an insult to our collective intelligence. Whip It is really good.

Juno it-girl Ellen Page plays Bliss, a small-town Texas misfit stuck between her own quirkiness and her mother's (the amazing Marcia Gay Harden) insistence that she fulfill her potential as a beauty queen. She's sarcastic, confused, and disenfranchised, like any good teenager. The only person she seems to really connect with is her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat). Then, she discovers derby.

The bulk of the movie takes the viewer through Bliss' discovery of and excellence in roller derby. She falls in love with it. However, it isn't presented as some sort of magic solution to all of her problems. As she builds new relationships with her teammates (an excellent collection: Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, Eve, and Drew Barrymore), her relationships with Pash and her parents fall apart. To complicate things, she also picks up a boyfriend at the derby, Oliver (Landon Pigg).

There are several remarkable things about this movie.

The first is that it focuses almost completely on relationships between women. Bliss and Oliver's relationship is featured to some degree, but it has none of the complication or importance of the ones between Bliss and Pash, Bliss and her mother, or even Bliss and her new teammates. They could have left the entire boyfriend thing out, but even with it in, it didn't get too much in the way of what was really important.

The second thing I found really fantastic was that the film took on the issue of aging in women. It was addressed in Bliss' interaction with her mom, who had been a beauty pageant queen in her youth as well, but it's even more prevalent in Bliss' rivalry with another skater, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). I've wondered how the generational gap is going to play out in roller derby as younger women (like Bliss) start to take advantage of what those a decade or more older (like Maven) have built, and I haven't see anything about it anywhere else, so I was thrilled they addressed it in Whip It.

The third thing I loved was the relationship between Bliss and her father (Daniel Stern). Dad's a good old boy, but he loves his family, and his eventual pride in Bliss' accomplishments on the track tears me up. Dads of girls tend to get a pretty short shrift on film--I can't think of the last really good and realistic father-daughter relationship I've seen--so this is a unique and welcome feature of the film.

The final thing worth mentioning is Bliss herself. I liked Ellen Page in Juno, but this is way better. Bliss is a real teenager--she's fucked up and she's awkward and she's not always right, but she's trying and learning and growing. Plus she's a roller derby badass. She's a heroine.

The movie is not particularly racially diverse. Bliss has one Black teammate, Rosa Sparks (Eve). She's the only person of color in the derby, from what I can tell. Having seen the actual Austin roller derby, I think this is an oversight. Where are the Latina skaters? There is one Latino cast member--Birdman, who works with Bliss and Pash (Ecuadorian actor Carlo Alban), but there really should be some more women of color skating. If the filmmakers had used some of the real Austin derby to fill in their scenes, they'd have had that. Plus it would have improved the skating.

Even though I would have liked to see Latina skaters, I'm still giving Whip It four stars. It's a near perfect girl power movie, skating right into the same place in my heart where A League of Their Own lives.

5 Comments

I am sooo looking forward to this film. I will see it twice at minimum once it finally opens in Germany.

I'm glad you finally reviewed this one Grace! :) When I saw this one heading down the pike, it had your name written all over it! :D And then when I started hearing good stuff about it, I was pretty sure it'd be an enjoyable view for you.

I have a generic question, as so that goes toward you Grace, Skye, and really everyone who checks into this blog, or who uses it as a resource to gage film.

I am wondering what exactly is H.C.? You'd think I'd know by now. :p But this is why I ask. It's easy not to think about it with a film like Bloodrayne, or The Matrix, because they are so excessive in both degrees. But something like this gets tricky.

Something like Whip It seems tough to me. Is it ok when Drew practices virtual tokenism when it's a near perfect girl power movie? Is it gender content first, and ethnic content second? I guess really good gender H.C trumps ethnicity. Does it work in reverse? I think maybe when I think about films like Drop Zone and Replacement Killers. Is it a bad thing when you are a sidekick to a white male -ala Terminator Salvation - but not as much when you are an extra to a white female? Are Eve and Carlo more resonant than I am thinking?

The lack of diversity makes sense in A League because african american women (and I guess asians and latinas who looked latina too?) weren't allowed to join. And yet the film still made a point to remind us why this is the case. But Whip It takes place in 2009 - why still such a white-washed cast? Maybe the Posh character could have been, well, maybe not Eve, but another minority?

And I have to admit, as far as the action genre goes, this is really starting to bug me. Is it seen as being too much in an action film when it focuses on women? Is it something else not quite so pleasant, like preference?

I ask this because I am trying to think of films where there were inter-ethnic friendships, or even had competing main characters of females of color and non-color. The last one I can think of was Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Aeon Flux, which both aired eons ago in the same year. I could thow in Secret Life of Bees, but that's not action.

But when you look at guy films, whether it seems to be playing on stereotypes a bit or no, or whether they are genuine partners, friends, or adversaries, you see a lot of ethnicity, from as far back as those Beverly Hills Cop films to the recent film w/ Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler. And that's just action films. Why is that?

Just thought I'd throw this out here and see what you all thought.

Thanks guys! And thanks as always for the review! :)

As always, d., you ask good questions. I think the reason this got four stars from me, even though I'd have preferred more cast members of color, is that the two people of color in the cast didn't feel like tokens. If they had, it would have been hard not to dock a star. But an argument could definitely be made for giving this one three rather than four because of the whitewashing.

I liked this - the intergenerational friendships were great as well (and I loved her Dad!). I thought the 'romance' was dealt with well, especially because it was set up as such a sweet romance and in the end wasn't Juno-esque at all, but life went on.

d- You've been accused of being Megan Fox's agent over at Women and Hollywood for having the nerve to defend her in a post about HOW DARE SHE BE SO SEXY when Kristin Stewart is such a sweet girl willing to romanticize one of the creepiest relationships every committed to book form.

But I digress. As I noted in my followup to your comment, it is unlikely you are an agent, you just always thoroughly analyze film commentaries. But now I am wondering, do you perchance work in a film-related field? You always seem to take Skye or Grace's insights to the next level....you could be our secret feminist mole inside Hollywood.

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