Being a teenager sometimes means going against the confines of home and finding a way to rightfully express a developing personality. Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page) is one such teenager and it is her story around which Drew Barrymoore builds her directorial debut, Whip it, an adaptation of the Shauna Cross novel Derby Girl and the story of a young girl who would rather rebel then behave according to her mother’s standards.
In order to keep peace in the household, Page’s seventeen-year-old misfit must succumb to her mother’s requests by participating in several citywide beauty pageants. But behind the front Bliss battles against an inner longing to discover her own triumphs and get out of the small town of Bodeen, Texas. Finally, when faced with a choice between a big city challenge, and an otherwise ordinary and mundane life, Bliss becomes reckless with a true sense of freedom. Realizing the free-wheeling joy of roller derby, what starts out as a rebellious hobby soon becomes the very essence of truth and happiness that will inevitably turn outcast into hero and Bliss into her own woman.
In a town where pageantry and beauty are consider the most important aspects of life Bliss already stands out. Even though she does not condone the ritual of staged judgment, she continues to participate for the sake of her mother, a former pageant princess. Our first glance of the pretty tomboy reveals a contestant that managed to dye her hair a lovely shade of blue mere minutes before the all-important Q&A where the girls talk about their plans for world peace and the like. The focus quickly shifts to a deeply disappointed mother played by Marcia Gay Harden who assumes the move was entirely meant to sabotage the family name.
Meanwhile over in Austin the very aggressive, all-girl sport of roller derby is booming, and once Bliss catches a glimpse of the mayhem she never looks back. Having lied to both her parents about what she’s doing (it’s an “SAT prep course”) and to the league scouts about her age, the track becomes her outlet and her trepidation soon turns to love as she manages to become one of their fastest competitors despite her petite frame. Through this new adventure, Bliss finally gains recognition from her peers, develops a relationship with dreamy rocker Oliver (Landon Pigg), all the while further straining her relationship with her parents and once supportive best friend Pasha. Eventually Bliss, who adopts the moniker “Babe Ruthless,” must decide which of her two families is most important.
Once again Ellen Page portrays a less then ordinary high-school girl unfazed by her own alternative image. Drew Barrymoore intentionally casts the young starlet as Bliss due to rough around the edges demeanor and a vague air of gender androgyny. But as Ellen Page continues to punch and skate her way through the film, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between her character Bliss and her role as Juno. Both tended towards air guitar and milk chugging as a way to embody a version of a girl too cool for school and Bliss is a character we may have seen before.
Despite an immense talent to appear natural on camera, Page is still somehow stunted by her perceived persona and fails to show range as an actress, although she does manage to give Bliss just enough personality to carry the film away from potentially veering into campy territory. Some of the most refreshing scenes are between Bliss and Oliver, played by real life rocker Landon Pigg, as they begin a romance that is both awkward and endearing. Through this relationship and that which she shares with her roller derby team, Bliss is finally able to give a little of her own meaning to her life.
Somehow Whip It manages to combine violence with a sweet sincerity that allows the audience to embrace these tough ladies as heroines rather then destroyers. Barrymoore and original writer Shauna Cross, who handled the script, really work hard to develop derby girls as people and give meaning to their quest for combat. As competing speeder Iron Maven, Juliette Lewis channels her inner badass as a chick born to raise Hell. One of the league’s fiercest competitors, Maven manages to challenge Bliss both on and off the rink, inevitably pushing her into a higher gear.
In contrast, the brutal but kind Maggie Mayhem, played by Kristin Wiig, reveals herself as a mother and acts as confidant giving out some much needed motherly advice. It is this relationship specifically that allows the audience to embrace the notion that women can be both powerful and sweet and all the while remain both sexy and ladylike. This juxtaposition of qualities allows for a film that will likely resonate with any person who ever felt that they were misunderstood. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much everybody.
Starring: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden, Sarah Habel, Shannon Eagen, Juliette Lewis, Kristen Wiig
Director: Drew Barrymore
Runtime: 111 Minutes
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
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