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.