What WHIP IT nails as well as anything ever committed to film is that heady, giddy moment in a girl’s life when she is sure that she has all the answers and that her parents are idiots. In other words, it’s that moment when the prospect of absolute freedom, unencumbered by responsibility, first makes its irresistible appearance.
For 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), its when four roller derby chicks on skates glide into the Austin, Texas store where she is arguing with her mother (Marcia Gay Hardin) over what one of them perceives as an ethical dilemma. Their hair is wild and so is their attitude as they drop flyers for their next match on the counter and then glide out again. Bliss, who has spent her short life humoring said mothers obsession with trotting her daughter through pageants and more pageants, has finally seen what it is that she really wants in life. To be one of those girls. Reaction against the demure gowns and passive personality required that loathes but that her younger sister, Shania (Eulala Scheel) adores? Almost certainly, but whatever the reason, she and best pal, Pash (Alia Shawat), make the trek from their tiny home town back to Austin for the match, where Bliss is invited by to be more than a spectator by one of the local teams less scary members, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig). The team is the Hurl Scouts, and though Bliss hasnt skated since her skates had Barbies on them, she shows up for the tryouts, makes the team, and impresses the slacker coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson) with her speed and her moxie. It turns out she is a natural, whizzing around the track, using her petite stature to excellent advantage against the opposition, and generally giving better than she gets when it comes to the rowdier aspects of the derby. As for that rule about having to be 21, its just a technicality for Bliss, dubbed Babe Ruthless for the rink, who lies about her age to the team, about where she is going two nights a week to her parents, and herself about being able to get away with it all.
The roller derby itself is a terrific metaphor for many things. The best is the one about strong women owning their power, flying around a track at exhilarating but dangerous speeds in heavy make-up, short skirt, and fishnets as the pleasure and peril of freedom. Drew Barrymore, who plays the Hurl Scouts rainbow-haired and resilient Smashly Simpson, makes her directorial debut her with an astute eye for the complex emotional passage being experienced beneath Blisss crash helmet. Page is all clear-eyed assurance. She gives Bliss the perfectly measured nuance of a girl that has not quite cut the ties to her parents and is not sure whether she wants to yet, or just ought to in order to become an adult without their permission. Hardin, raises the stakes in the classic mother-daughter love-hate relationship as a great, but not perfect mom, with just enough flaws to keep it interesting and realistic. Less realistic, but remarkably innocent and poetic, is a scene of mutual underwater seduction in a swimming pool as Bliss discovers another kind of freedom.
WHIP IT hits all the usual tropes, teen dreams, stormy conflicts, including the angst of growing apart from a best friend, romance with a dreamy musician (Landon Pigg), disasters that offer the prospect of personal growth at the expense of a few bruises, literal and figurative. Yet, its packaged with such a sense of fun and respect for the characters that it overcomes that obvious problem. As for the bruises, As for those bruises, nothing sums it up better than a quick shot of two girls comparing their sunset-hued bruises after a game and vying with each other over whose is better. Be tough, look good, and dont take a body blow or a no for an answer.