“Whip It” tells the tender, romantic tale of a 17-year-old girl falling in love for the first time. As is often the case with young love, the object of her affection is a rugged outsider. Its name is roller derby.
How refreshing to see a film about female characters where the primary focus isn’t men. Yeah, our teenage heroine has a crush on a human male, too, but he is second in her life, after roller derby. Her inevitable confrontation with her disapproving parents is about it, not him. “I am in love with this!” she says. For once the female protagonist’s journey into adulthood isn’t about finding a man to love but about finding herself.
The star of this cheerful and pleasant comedy is Ellen Page (“Juno”), the new poster girl for young female empowerment. She plays Bliss Cavendar, an alterna-girl and indie-music fan who lives in a podunk Texas town from which she and her similarly ill-fitting best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), long to escape. Bliss is constantly chagrined by her mother, (Marcia Gay Harden) a prim, conservative Texas mom who wants nothing more than for Bliss to win the Miss Blue Bonnet beauty pageant, go to college, and nab a husband.
It’s clear Bliss will fall in love with roller derby the moment it skates into her life. She and Mom are shopping in Austin when three members of one of the local teams come rolling in, dressed in their derby outfits and exuding confidence and danger. Bliss gapes at them, smitten, while the soundtrack plays a love ballad heavy with acoustic guitar. Every film with a romance story has a scene like this; the only difference is that the boy has been replaced with roller derby. (It’s not the women Bliss is attracted to. It’s what they represent.)
Bliss joins the team, the Hurl Scouts, and we are inducted into the world of roller derby, at which Bliss unexpectedly excels. Everyone plays under a punny name that mixes femininity with violence: Rosa Sparks, Smother Teresa, Smashley Simpson, and my personal favorite, Jabba the Slut. The rules of the game are explained (thank goodness), but not much effort is made to turn this into a “sports film.” More important is Bliss’ newfound freedom and happiness, diminished only slightly by the fact that she has to hide the whole thing from her parents. Her easygoing dad (Daniel Stern) might go for it, but Mom is out of the question.
Well, you can see how this is shaping up. Bliss’ deception must be uncovered; there must be a falling out between her and her mother; perhaps the championship game will be scheduled at the same time as the beauty pageant; perhaps Bliss will neglect her old friend Pash in favor of her new teammates. Maybe Juliette Lewis will play a mustache-twirling villain on an opposing team who sets Bliss in her sights for no good reason. Maybe. I’m just spitballing here.
The story, written by Shauna Cross and adapted from her own novel, may be formulaic in many respects, but it’s not enough to detract from the film’s overall good-natured enjoyability. The first-time director is one Drew Barrymore, who also has a smallish role as one of Bliss’ more aggressive teammates, and she acquits herself admirably in her behind-the-camera debut. Kristen Wiig, Zoe Bell, and the rapper Eve are among the other Hurl Scouts, with Jimmy Fallon as the league’s horny, disheveled announcer and Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen’s brother) as Razor, the Scouts’ bearded doofus of a coach. Wiig is particularly useful not just for being funny but for acting as the team’s maternal figure. “Just because you found a new family doesn’t mean you throw the old one away,” she tells Bliss after a rift with her parents. A film like this needs someone wise to keep things grounded. Wiig is a nice touch.
Bliss’ romance with a rock singer named Oliver (Landon Pigg) is decidedly a lesser concern. Her relationship with her mother, meanwhile, is vital, and Marcia Gay Harden is characteristically terrific as Mom, with her “psychotic ideals of ’50s womanhood” and undying love for her daughter. Barrymore resists overplaying the sentiment, preferring to keep things upbeat and jocular. “Whip It” succeeds on that level: funny, agreeable, and lightly entertaining, and not nearly as grueling as an actual roller derby match.
B (1 hr., 51 min.; )