Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is like an online gaming avatar. It allows us to step into the shoes of somebody else and live vicariously through them, even if only for a brief period of time. It is a coming-of-age story told with equanimity and aplomb, a story that is likely to resonate within many of us who have had a desire to follow our dreams, but have never realized them.
Based on the book Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, Whip It stars Ellen Page as Bliss, a 17 year old high school student in desperate need of a new life. She lives in a small, desolate town in Texas, has a miserable job at The Oink Joint (a local restaurant where she is forced to wear an embarrassing pig apron in front of her peers), and she participates in a myriad of pageants to please her mother, despite her secret hatred for them. She is emotionally lost and unsure of where life is taking her until she finds a flyer for a roller derby league promoting the upcoming pre-season game. She attends the event and falls in love, eventually trying out for the team and making it due to an intense determination and a speed they had previously never encountered. Because she would never be given permission from her parents, she keeps it a secret as long as she can, but the championship game and the biggest pageant of the year have conflicting dates, so she is forced to choose between her happiness or her mother’s.
Whip It is yet another sports movie that follows the same genre conventions so many previous films have followed. It is about overcoming hardship. It is about dealing with emotional pain. It is about following your dreams. The difference between this and others, though, is that there is no revelatory experience. There is no message about racism or the fragility of life. No, Whip It is just pure fun, a feel good movie that doesn’t bombard you with guilt or sadness, but rather whimsy and wit.
The film is mostly a comedy, and a good one at that, but it is not always entertaining, as seen with the mediocre romance that feels inauthentic in an otherwise perfectly convincing world. Page is wonderful in her role and exuberates the same bubbly charm that she displayed so wonderfully in Juno, but her romantic counterpart, played by Landon Pigg, is a poor match to her charisma and allure. Despite the prominence of the romantic theme throughout much of the story, it felt forced. Bliss is a girl who wants to be on her own, away from her parents and the drudgery of school and work. She wants to join the team so she can truly feel alive for the first time in her life. This is what the movie is really about and the relationship seems misplaced.
The emotional center of the film explores opposing viewpoints in the mother/daughter relationship. Bliss’s mother is somewhat of a Christian conservative type who believes in a 50’s era style of womanhood where the women were prim, proper and orderly and she hates to see Bliss venture down a path that she deems crude and unruly. She is too hard on her at times, but Bliss mistakes her love and compassion for selfishness. Bliss feels as if she is doing these pageants to live out the life her mother had, but it is really only her desire to see Bliss succeed that drives her to push her daughter so hard.
Though simple in concept, each part of Whip It combines into an absorbing tale whose appeal is undeniable. It is a strong directorial debut for Drew Barrymore, Page is beautiful and fun as usual, and Jimmy Fallon plays a small role as the commentator for the derby events and gains more laughs in his few brief scenes than in his whole tenure on his late night show. It won’t turn any heads, but Whip It will delight those with light hearts and pure minds.
Whip It receives 3.5/5