Whip It is what the Spice Girls meant when they sang about “girl power”. Back in 1994, that world beating pop band promised to bring feminism back into the popular vernacular. Hollywood was expected to jump on board and deliver female-centric films that weren’t about strippers. But here we are, almost fifteen years later, and the teenage girls that grew up listening to Wannabe are now young women, still waiting for the mainstream media to make movies that celebrate them. Instead, television shows like The Hills and Keeping up with the Kardashians, seemingly scripted by the characters from Mad Men, do irreparable damage to that old “girl power” movement. Of course, the Spice Girls aren’t to blame for this decline in standards (well, maybe Posh). But someone is going to have to explain themselves for this mess when they get to the Pearly Gates. The good news is that it won’t be anyone involved in the production of Whip It, the best and most satisfying celebration of womanhood to hit cinemas in a long time.
The film stars Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender, an indie-rock loving teenage misfit from Bodeen, Texas. Wait, where are you going? Relax; Page isn’t playing this like a Texan Juno. Bliss is a completely different girl. She lacks Juno’s bravado and confidence and also has this undercurrent of frustrated rage seething under her surface. She could really use a Paulie Bleeker in her life to give her some solace from her oppressive mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who wants nothing more than for her daughter to follow her footsteps and become a beauty queen.
Bliss is more intrigued by the Austin Roller Derby League, which is populated by tattooed female action figures with funky names like Iron Maven, Bloody Holly and Eva Destruction. You need to be as tough as your name implies if you are going to engage in this game. It’s kind of like a running race on wheels crossed with rugby. The sport intrigues Bliss and the captain of The Hurl Scouts, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), tells her to try out for the team. Soon, the once-confused teen finds herself surrounded by like minded rebels; a group of strong women eager to take her under their wing and teach her how to be herself. And wouldn’t you know it – Bliss becomes their star player! Just don’t tell mum.
Whip It was written by Shauna Cross, adapting her own 2007 novel Derby Girl for the big screen. The script is solid, but the real MVP is first-time director Drew Barrymore. The 34-year-old actress here emerges as an exciting up and coming director. She also has a supporting role as one of the Hurl Scouts, named Smashley Simpson, a dim-witted stoner who has taken a few too many blows to the head. It’s interesting that Barrymore would cast herself in this role; it’s as if she is acting like what many would expect her to be in real life. But behind her whole flighty-flower-power act lies a natural director. Few first-timers could handle this project, which hinges on some incredible roller-blading action sequences and still requires a deft emotional touch. What can I say? Gertie pulls it off.
Speaking of those roller-blading sequences … wow. Although some will write off the sport itself as silly, it is portrayed in Whip It as thrilling as Rollerball. The blading actresses, including Wiig, Barrymore, Page, Zoe Bell, Ari Graynor and Juliette Lewis, definitely have some impressive moves. While I’m sure some stunt-women were used, it is amazing how often the actresses are quite clearly playing the sport themselves. Should this whole ‘acting’ thing not work, they’ve got a career in the Roller Derby leagues waiting for them. Of course, that won’t be necessary. The supporting cast are great comic foils, and Page is such a talented actress she can star in silly comedies and not once make you doubt the Academy for nominating her for an Oscar.
At this point, I’d like to acknowledge some of the highest grossing female-centric films of 2009 so far: He’s Just Not That into You, Hannah Montana: The Movie, The Ugly Truth and My Sister’s Keeper. Whip It, meanwhile, has barely made a splash at the U.S. box office. Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression and say “Whip It is one of the most important movies of all time!” That’s obviously not the case. It is a fun, harmless movie that exceeds the low standards set by similar films. However, it treats it’s mostly female cast of characters with respect, and this is (sadly) a rare treat in cinema. Hannah Montana may be this generation’s Spice Girl, but Bliss Cavender is the one really waving the “girl power” flag.