You have to hand it to the Hollywood formula. It really does work well when done well. With Whip It, not only do we get an old fashioned sports movie, but we also get a decent high school, coming of age story thrown into the mix. Best of all, both stories are told fairly and the cast performs convincingly, leaving audiences very little to nitpick. The biggest complaint, however, will probably be that the movie is predictable, but all things considered, that facet is more of a feature than a bug.
In Whip It Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar: a teenage girl, living in a small Texan town with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her father (Daniel Stern). Bliss finds small town living stifling as she’s forced to follow her mother’s footsteps of being a beauty queen. All of that changes when she discovers roller derby in the nearby city of Austin and meets Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) who invites Bliss to try out for the team. When she makes it, Bliss’ life expands in exciting ways, finding it more and more difficult to keep her double life a secret from her parents and too amazing to give up – especially when she feels compelled to defeat her newfound arch nemesis Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) on the derby rink.
In many ways, Whip It is a simple, standard story. An awkward young person comes to the crossroads of living for others or living their own life. The young person discovers a place where they feel right at home, but since the new life conflicts with the old life and the young person either succeeds or fails in reconciling the two. The general formula is pretty obvious; so much so that when Bliss’ new life appears to be working out extremely well, the audience will grow restless waiting for the inevitable downfall so that Bliss can start building a bridge between both worlds. This isn’t necessarily bad, since watching the characters move from beat to beat is fun in and of itself. On a less technical level, Whip It also offers a rich story that girls and women are really going to enjoy. The film is laden with female-affirming themes, including finding self-worth beyond beauty, female camaraderie and zero tolerance for loser boyfriends. Yet, there’s just enough sports and testosterone in the movie to keep reluctant male viewers entertained.
The acting overall is serviceable, with a few standout performances. Ellen Page turns in the usual fantastic performance as an awkward high school girl who comes into her own. The growth that Page is able to capture is nothing short of natural. On the other hand, the role of Bliss seems like familiar territory and it will be nice to see Page in something dramatically different next time. Marcia Gay Harden is also a joy to watch as the overbearing mother. It’s impressive how much emotion Harden can convey with subtle movements, like a wave of her hand or a hardened expression. Other roles simply serve a purpose, like Jimmy Fallon’s Johnny Rocket who’s really just there for comedy relief, while yet other performances teetered on the brink of being wooden. Thankfully, none of the cast distracted with a poor performance.
Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut definitely held its own. She plays it safe and doesn’t throw in any crazy shots or overly long takes. There are a few heavy-handed shots that overly illustrate Bliss’ state of mind and some of the action sequences could use a little more visual drama, but these complaints are easy to overlook. The only scene that stood out as indefensibly odd is when two lovers spend their entire love-making session under water in a swimming pool. It’s easy to see the actors struggling while they try to kiss without floating to the surface.
At the end of the day, it won’t really matter that Whip It is formulaic. What audiences will enjoy are the different variables and how the characters resolve their problems in ways that speak to the common human experience. Drew Barrymore’s first directed film is competent and entertaining. It doesn’t revolutionize filmmaking, but it certainly promises a bright future for the director.