Whip It – Movie Review

Perhaps tied a little too closely to the generic plot arc of a sports film, Whip It nevertheless delivers a fun time and a long overdue worthwhile return to generational exploration. It is unfortunately macabre now to say that there is no John Hughes working in Hollywood today, but there hasn’t been since the mid-80’s, and while Drew Barrymore is not remotely John Hughes, Whip It is at least a cleverly-expressed attempt at doing what he did.

Had we someone at the helm who could really pull at the small nuances and milk every scene for all it’s worth (in the good way), this one would in all likelihood have been able to rock you to the core and shoot to instant classic status. Remember the first time you saw The Breakfast Club, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? That kind of potential is in here. As it stands, we only have a really good effort, and a film that should not be overlooked. If that sounds somewhat negative and confusing, it should be taken as high praise to cause thoughts of John Hughes at all, and to fall rather short of that mark is something a lot of directors are only kidding themselves about hoping to achieve. Look, very few people are John Hughes.

Our story is that of Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a High School girl from a depressingly small town. Saddled with a mother who is pageant-nutty, and working part-time in a pulled-pork specialty diner, Bliss is struggling to see the future. Her mom tries, and is even working to be cool enough to buy the boots, until she finds out she’s in a store that sells… paraphernalia. Dad is about as cool as your dad can be, even to the extent that he is on board with hiding from mom, but your dad just can’t avoid being your dad.

Bliss is looking for something in the utterly genuine sense of sort of muddling along while hoping something will suddenly appear where her eyes happen to be pointing. What appears is Roller Derby, and Bliss wants to go check it out. One of the film’s best moves is that Bliss never really has a specific interest in joining Roller Derby. She isn’t a fan. She doesn’t have the posters on her wall.

At first she just wants to go, in the same way she would likely want to go to whatever happened to be on the flyer she was handed. It’s outside the scope of her normal existence for a start, and in big city Austin. The derby girls are on the wild side, look great, and are quintessential icons of the freedom she desires. Most of all, she’s definitely going to have to lie to her parents to get there.

She doesn’t even go in looking to join, but is instead offered the idea by one of the derby girls. When she somewhat offhandedly tells one of the derby girls that they are her new heroes, she is told that she should try out, and is given the film’s tagline, “Be your own hero.” Even still she does not set out to join the derby out of any particular desire connected to it, but out of a desire to join anything. To do something, even if it’s wrong.

As the plot synopsis plays out, Bliss meets a guy, carries her best friend along on her adventures, has some trouble with her mother and the pageant scene, learns the derby ropes, and makes it to the requisite “big game,” but none of it matters and you won’t (and shouldn’t) care. What happens, in such a sense, is as irrelevant as listing off events in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off… well, they go to a baseball game, “borrow” a car….

Whip It is a story about finding out who you are, brilliantly without platitude (nearly without statement at all) and as an expression that it is almost always something that happens accidentally, and really because you’re open to it and let it happen, not because you do it.

The film might have better put together the family vibe and lifestyle of the derby, as opposed to mostly mentioning it at you, and parts of Bliss’ life might have been delivered better, and earlier, but overall this is one of the more solid treatments of teen angst in at least a decade. I could easily have been inclined to say that there is no doubt people will be watching this twenty years from now, but I have to be honest and report that there is not much doubt.

 

*This review is dedicated to @mickipedia, real-life Derby Girl and Are You Screening? interviewee.

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Written by
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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