When a problem comes along, you must whip it
I saw Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, this weekend. Surprisingly, I was not disappointed–I pretty much got what I was expecting, which was an all-out fun celebration of tattoos, sass, girls beating the crap out of other ladies, and general hipster disillusionment set to an enjoyable soundtrack. Yes, it was predictable. Yes, some of the dialogue was completely twee. But can you really go wrong with a movie that centers on a roller derby team called the Hurl Scouts, whose members feature names like Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly, and Rosa Sparks? No, no you cannot.
Bliss Cavander (Ellen Page) is a timid teenager stuck in backwater Bodean, Texas, forced to compete in beauty pagaents to please her mother, played with empathy and warmth by the lovely Marcia Gay Harden. When Bliss takes a shopping trip to Austin, she gets her first glimpse of roller derby, and goes to try out for the team on a whim. What follows is pretty much your standard underdog team sports movie montage of wacky hijinks–the Hurl Scouts are the worst team in the league, but the women are fun and they lose with panache (chanting “We’re #2!!” after losing yet another derby match). Inevitably, the scrappy novice Bliss is a flash on skates, and soon, the team is coming from behind to claim victory. Though the movie’s trajectory here smacks of The Mighty Ducks in fishnets and eyeliner (the team even has two deaf players, The Manson Sisters, who are ringers for the Ducks’ infamous Bash Brothers), there are some pleasant surprises: Alia Shawkat (Maebe Funke from the brilliant Arrested Development) crackles as Bliss’s best friend and fellow Squaler-slinger, Pash; and though Marcia Gay Harden’s character walks a dangerous line toward being a typical Texas pageant mother stereotype, the movie dials it back, never making a caricature of her. In fact, the mother-daughter relationship was one of my favorite parts of the movie, and I think it was portrayed realistically without getting too schmaltzy.
One of my major issues with the movie was the requisite romance element. Bliss falls for the “dreamy” Oliver, who in turn falls for her after they share a deep moment over a record (isn’t that how all good hipster romances start?). Obvi, love ensues, complete with games of Marco Polo in a cornfield, sharing pickles/making out at the movies, and having sex underwater to a Jens Lekman song. Swoon! Ok, number 1, he’s not cute at all. Number 2, why can’t relationships be more clearly developed than “oh hey that chick is checking me out and she’s cute so of course I am going to stalk-I mean, go to her place of work in a tiny town that no one ever goes to just so I can hang out with her” in movies? Is that too much to ask? However, I liked how the whole relationship scenario ended up, so the movie gets points for that.
In the end, the movie isn’t completely cliche, and it’s fun to watch, regardless of the pitfalls. It’s even mildly empowering for the ladies, which is always nice to see. So grab your best girl friends and treat yourself to a movie that won’t make you hate your life–I’m glad I did!
*cross-posted to Fringe Magazine