Whip It (2009)

For reasons I cannot recall, this film landed on my must-see list before it had come out. Having looked at the sole trailer before writing this review, I imagine it must have been festival reviews that garnered my interest and not so much the preview, which makes the film look like an insufferable mix of indie teen comedy and exotic sports drama, while summarising most of the movie. It also can’t have been the presence of Ellen Page as the lead, who I developed an irrational mild dislike for during the promotion of Juno (2007).

Whip It centres on the ironically-named 17 year old Bliss Cavendish, who longs to get out of the small Texas town she grew up in, as well as out from the shadow of her overbearing mother, a former beauty queen who wants her two daughters to follow in her footsteps. An opportunity to escape the pageant circus presents itself when Bliss notices a bunch of brash, confident roller derby girls leaving flyers at a shop. She attends a game in nearby Austin, becomes intrigued, and tries out for a spot with the undisputed anti-champion, the Hurl Scouts. (From what I could gather, the entire league is limited to Austin, with a handful of small teams competing against each other and common try-outs for everyone to take their picks from.)

It sounds like the set-up for a pretty standard plot, and indeed it is. Bliss gets accepted because apparently she’s very fast despite minimal training, and the Hurl Scouts’ coach overlooks her obvious lack of aggression. A combination of Bliss’s talent and the rather sudden decision by her team members to start listening to their coach leads to the Scouts ascending the ranks and punching a ticket to the championship match, which the team has never been in contention for. A major romantic subplot is also all too simple: Bliss likes a boy from afar, he seeks her out, they become a couple. The last quarter or so of the film introduces complications, but they never really amount to steering the plot away from being too easy (or, in the case of the domestic drama subplot with Bliss and her parents, from being utterly predictable).

Its title, in case you’re wondering, comes from a derby move that involves the other team members giving the jammer (the only player who can rack up points, by lapping members of the opposing team) a boost in speed. It occurs in the finale, of course, but also several times before, with no sense of having to overcome the difficulty of the maneuver or having to train much to be able to do it. It’s symptomatic for the film’s attempts to avoid the preditable beats of a typical sports film by removing climactic arcs. The race scenes in general aren’t really all that excitingly shot, to be frank. They’re not boring and you can generally tell what’s going on, though, so first-time director Drew Barrymore can at least lord that over Michael Bay. For her next project, I wish she’d stop with the constant needle-dropping of pop music crowding out a genuine score, which is a pet peeve of mine.

I can’t deny that the movie is rather fluffy and lightweight. And yet. Some time into the film, the coach asks his girls whether they’re satisfied with mediocrity. They respond with cheering. It’s like Whip It bears its lack of distinctiveness as a badge of honour. And maybe it should, because I also can’t deny that I enjoyed myself greatly while watching it, all the previously-mentioned drawbacks notwithstanding. There’s something inexplicable about that, much like my attraction to the film in the first place. The lack of great conflict is turned into an asset by showing us the easy, if rough, camaraderie the often older derby women have even with their competitors, particularly in contrast with the haughty pageant crowd.

The film is almost two hours long, but focuses more or less exclusively on Bliss. A few other characters get their moments, but most remain thoroughly one-dimensional. (Deleted scenes on the Blu-ray disc hint at more conflict, but seem rather clunky and better left on the cutting-room floor.) So it’s a good thing that Ellen Page is unexpectedly good here, playing someone much meeker and completely different than Juno and carrying the movie on her shoulders. The other actors are also uniformingly excellent, particularly Marcia Gay Harden as Bliss’s mother. They suggest complete lives outside of the track and make you forget how thinly sketched they often are and how their only purpose is to give colour to the drab life of a teenager who needed the right passion in order to come out of her shell. And for once, I guess, that is okay.

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