So you’re going to make a movie about a young girl discovering her identity through obscure, violent sporting events? I’m there. For those of you who have not experienced the crazier side of American sports there’s a great little sport called roller derby. It’s like roller skating but with violence, because all good American sports need violence. Add in chicks with tight tank tops and tough attitude and you’ve got yourself a marketable film.
But Bliss (Ellen Page) is far from the tough and tumble crowd of the all-female roller derby league in Austin, Texas. Instead, she is dragged by her mother from pageant to pageants in the area surrounding her small home town, Bodeen, Texas. With a name like Bodeen you know you’re in for a culturally illuminating experience. It’s by coincidence that Bliss first comes into contact with the crazy derby skaters but from moment one she sees something fun and exciting, or at least something that can get her out of Bodeen for a while. So she joins a team, albeit, the worst team in the league, but it’s a team.
But like all good sports movies, the film isn’t about the sport. There are only a handful of roller derby sequences and most of the movie isn’t about the derby team or the buildup to the next game but about Bliss and those who surround her. Yes, a significant part of that is her new derby team, but there’s still a lot of her everyday life that she has to deal with. For one she has to deceive her parents into thinking she’s taking SAT classes. And there’s the job at the diner. And, of course, there’s the cute boy.
What this all means is that the film is much less of the footloose comedy you’d expect. A lot of the second half of the film is heavy dramatics. A lot of the film’s best moments are when Bliss and her parents interact. It would be easy to vilify her parents as misunderstood fools who simply are suppressing her expression but there’s a very human and understandable reason behind their actions. A lot of it has to do with the fact that these are good ole’ Texas parents.
I’ve lived in Texas all of my life, so I can’t help but be a bit biased because this film understands Texas. A lot of the incidental stuff is spot. This is due to the fact the film comes adapted (by its written) from novelist Shauna Cross’ Roller Derby which is her fictional experiences based upon her real life roller derby career. The announcer of the derby reminds me of many a small town Texas announcer who told bad jokes and hit on single women. The film does linger a lot on life in small town Texas, which is accurate but also a bit overplayed. But where it really hits home is with the portrayal of small town parents. It’s brutally honest about their shortcomings but shows there’s more to it than that.
The pageants exemplify a very nostalgic view of women. I’ve seen many a woman shaping their daughters into quaint little housewives by stuffing them in quaint little dresses and ruling them with strict guidelines. Problem is these girls are daft, and have no notions about how to go about practicing free will. They are their mama’s puppet. From the first scene Bliss is dissatisfied with this life and doesn’t find it quite has the meaningful significance her mother prescribes to it.
Contrast this to the down and dirty roller derbies. Sure, it’s all about female empowerment and the masculinity that has been imparted to woman, but it’s also a lot of fun to watch. There’s an elegance to the rough style in which the derbies are captured. The best parts are when the camera glides along with the skaters on the rink. There’s a fluidity and gracefulness to it and yet it still maintains that rough edge with everything slightly out of focus and the camera jolting about. They are easily some of the most entertaining and exiting scenes I’ve experienced in the theater this year.
And that’s really what makes Whip It great: It knows when to be fun and when to be dramatic. There’s no great extreme where it becomes implausible that two scenes could exist in the same film. It’s because the film centers on the life of Bliss who exists in two separate worlds. In that way the film is about reconciling the two. And how it pulls it off the merging of the two worlds is where this film comes together for me. Much more can be said about Whip It but a lot of the enjoyment of the film is watching it unfold into something unexpected.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing