One of my very favorite things is going to a movie expecting to dislike it, only to walk out of the theater having had my expectations turned upside-down. There is little that is more satisfying in a movie-going experience than finding a gem where one anticipated trash (though admittedly, sometimes what you want is something horrible that you can really rip apart upon viewing it). Unfortunately, this particular circumstance has a reverse angle that occurs when you expect a movie to be good, and find yourself disappointed, those occasions where the picture in question utterly lets you down either because it can’t live up to the standards you set for it, or because it’s just not the film you thought it was going to be.
For me, the latter is exactly the case with Whip It, the first directorial effort of Drew Barrymore. People often go to the movies to experience new worlds and gain perspective into a subject they weren’t familiar with beforehand. Whip It is one of the first films in a while to really look at the world of roller derby, a female-dominated form of sports entertainment, and the prospect of getting a fresh angle into the culture initially had me excited; I anticipated a movie that made that world palatable and real. To my dismay, it turns out that Whip It isn’t that movie. Roller derby is there, and roller derby happens, but it’s more or less left as a backdrop against which the story of Bliss Cavender is told.
Bliss (Ellen Page) lives in a small Texas town where she spends her days working at the local diner and reluctantly participating in pageants at the whim of her over-bearing mother (Marcia Gay-Harden, eerily natural in the role of the domineering parent). On a brief trip to Austin, Bliss has a chance encounter that introduces her to the world of roller derby; she immediately becomes enamored with the idea, and sneaks off to watch a league game in an abandoned warehouse in the city. At this point, her path is set, and she becomes determined to join the team and shape herself into a rough and tumble, independent roller derby girl.
What follows is a very typical teenage rebellion film, as Bliss struggles to keep her new-found passion a secret from her parents (her bruises are difficult to ignore, after all) while balancing her relationship with her best friend (Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat) and her crush on bland rocker boy Oliver (Landon Pigg, a person so uninteresting that it’s not even worth linking to their IMDB profile). The movie isn’t exactly light on roller derby; there’s plenty of roller derby action to be seen, and a great deal of time is spent with Bliss as she interacts with her teammates (Eve, Barrymore herself, Zoe Bell, and a truly engaging Kristen Wiig) and rival (Juliette Lewis), but we learn surprisingly little about each of the players and they rarely act as anything other than static characters in the film’s background. Wiig is given a chance to maneuver as team captain Maggie Mayhem, who provides a sort of mother surrogate for Bliss to look up to, but aside from her the team is more or less left to the side in favor of Bliss’s conflict with her parents.
While that story isn’t bad by any means, it’s not the story that I’d wanted to see. Whip It could have been about how Bliss reconciles her youthful rebellion through understanding what it is that drew these women to a sport like roller derby; instead, it’s a better than average story of parents clashing with their oldest child that simply features some pretty well-shot scenes of roller derby games. It may have suited the film to have trimmed some of its side plots; Shawkat’s and Page’s characters have a falling out that is so limp it could have been cut from the film without hardly effecting the plot at all, and the love between Bliss and Oliver similarly feels lifeless. (Though it does lead to a beautifully shot scene that takes place underwater.) The film tries to balance too many angles, instead of focusing on the juiciest ones, and should maybe have spent more time both with the Cavender family and with the roller derby teams.
But the time allotted to both stories ends up being time well spent overall. The burden of the film is all on Page, who is present throughout the vast majority of the movie’s running time, and she handles the job fabulously. I had a fear that she would end up simply channeling Juno MacGuff here, and while there are traces of that character in Bliss, they only appear because the two are kindred spirits. Where Juno was much more out-spoken and fearless, Bliss is much more withdrawn and timid, something I wasn’t aware the bright and charismatic Page could really pull off. Here, she’s quiet and meek, and yet there’s an obvious potential in her that she desperately wants to meet, and yet lacks the full confidence to achieve it. There’s something about that that can be universally understood, as we all have aspirations that we want to fulfill but sometimes don’t have the courage to seek. Bliss’ goal might be simply to play roller derby and go toe-to-toe with the big girls, but the tenacity with which she pursues her desire is to be admired.
Aside from Page (and really, let’s face it, the actress is rarely unwatchable), the movie’s depictions of roller derby games are exciting and engaging (though Jimmy Fallon wears out his welcome as the league’s announcer in record time). Whip It makes the rules clear, which isn’t a difficult feat given their relative simplicity, and the games themselves are captured and presented cleanly and clearly without losing tension or intensity. Unfortunately, this has the drawback of making the audience wish for more footage of league games; I could have watched an entire movie of Bliss and the Hurl Scouts going up against the likes of The Holly Rollers or Fight Attendants. There’s an inherent campiness to the way teams form around a particular theme, and players create an in-game persona for themselves; it’s sports entertainment, pure and simple, and if it’s this much fun to watch in a fictional depiction I can only imagine how great an actual live game is. This is to Barrymore’s credit as a first time director; she manages to generate a lot of interest about the culture she’s included in her film, even without really exploring it past the surface and treating it as something other than a simple game. I would have preferred she delve into it a little more, but then Whip It would have been a different movie that told a story other than the one she wanted to tell.
Whip It, in the end, isn’t a perfect film, but it’s not a bad one either; it runs on a level of charm that carries it all the way through the end, and it’s certainly a solid movie for a first effort. For her next outing, Barrymore should buckle down and narrow her focus; while Whip It‘s best aspects dominate the movie, the odd story lines that break off from the main plot distract us from it and ultimately don’t serve the film at all. I’m willing to give Barrymore goodwill for her first directorial effort, and hopefully Whip Ittaught her a few good lessons that she’ll bring to her next project.