Friday, October 2, 2009

Maybe I'm Ready to Kick a Little Ass: Whip It

Everybody has a split second.

It's almost imperceptible, and often doesn't come to light until many years and life experiences later.  But if you look back really, really hard, you can find the split second where you experienced a clear, perfect vision of the person you wanted to become.

When I was a sophomore acting enthusiast at a teeny-tiny sports-crazy Catholic high school, I road-tripped with some friends to the small city near us (which seemed plenty big compared to our farm town) to see a play.  And not just any play, but a theatrical version of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, the first show in the area whose cast and crew was comprised entirely of teenagers.  That night I was feeling brave with my fashion choices and opted to go a little more funky, wearing a headscarf that my mom thought was weird and consequently I adored.  Before the show started, I headed up the aisle so I could go to the bathroom. 

That was my split second.

Because while headed up the aisle, I faced a crowded theatre full of people my age in weird clothes and rainbow-colored hair, all of us in the same place because we loved theatre and loved it even more when it was produced and performed by our peers. 

And from then on, my life cracked open.

That summer, I did my very first outdoor theatre production in that very same small city--with some of the very same people involved in The Outsiders. I discovered bands like They Might Be Giants, indulged my loud mouth, and realized that I wanted more than anything to study theatre.  In a weird twist of fate, I ended up dating The Outsiders' director's brother--who had seen me and my headscarf en route to the bathroom from his vantage point in the lighting booth.  Without even knowing it, he was part of my split second.

Which brings me to Whip It, Drew Barrymore's empowering and incredibly gratifying directorial debut, adapted from Shauna Cross' YA novel.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the opening shenanigans, where small-town Texas teen Bliss Cavendar (the glowing Ellen Page) reluctantly participates in a beauty pageant while sporting the "temporary" blue hair color applied by her BFF Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat, in a long-overdue return to my life).  But the real beauty of the film, for me at least, began when 17-year-old Bliss experienced her split second.  On a trip to Austin with her pageant-princess-turned-postal-worker mom (a pitch-perfect Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss spots three tough, tattooed broads on skates cockily distributing flyers for a roller-derby exhibition.  Bliss' eyes widen, her breath catches, and her face longs for something that until that moment she didn't realize she wanted.  And in the audience, tears of recognition ran down my face because I'd never seen the split second captured that beautifully and accurately.

I'm ecstatic to report that the film just got better from there.

The story's both heartwrenchingly relatable--outcast teen discovers a whole new world outside her sheltered, suffocating environment and learns a lot about herself along the way--and gloriously groundbreaking--said outcast teen learns that in the right situation, it's downright awesome to throw down.  When Bliss declares to her parents that she's in love, she's not referring to her shaggy-haired paramour (real-life musician Landon Pigg), but to her place on the ragtag Hurl Scouts team.  Yes, there are mean girls in every incarnation of Bliss' life--from pageant-queen beeyotches to cheerleader antagonists to a derby rival (Juliette Lewis) who is threatened by her talent--but for every nasty chick, there's a cool single mom (Kristen Wiig, seamlessly blending dry wit and earthy empathy), a fearless female who willingly takes 'em for the team (Drew Barrymore), and a down and dirty New Zealander who's always up for a fist bump or a rough hug (my new girl-crush Zoe Bell--seriously, I want to go drinking with her and stir up some bar brawls).  When Bliss is reluctant to engage in the "contact" of the ultimate contact sport, her teammate encourages her to get angry--because when anger has an appropriate channel, it can lead to glory.  I've been going to movies since I was two, and NEVER have I seen a film where a teenage girl is told that anger is not only normal and acceptable, but a worthwhile emotion.

What's more, holding together the film's many sweeping victories, are lovely, precise little details.  How astoundingly beautiful all the women are, not because of flawless spray tans or perfect hair, but because of skin art (I normally don't agree with neck tattooes, but they really work here), hard-earned muscles, and pride in their scrapes and bruises.  (Even a bloody nose is almost poetic.)  How Bliss and Pash's sweet physicality was a spot-on portrayal of teen girl bestfriendhood.  How a post-derby party finds two members of opposing teams flirting, not to titillate a horny dude (when Jimmy Fallon's crass announcer comes sniffing around, he is promptly sneered at and dismissed by both ladies) but because they genuinely seem into one another.  How it's just accepted that fans stampede the roller derby in eager droves, and paraphernalia sold at games features women's names, team numbers and pictures.

Still not sold?  Alia Shawkat utters the word "shemale."  If you were a fan of Arrested Development, you should be peeing your pants right. about. now.

Finally, I know it's in all the previews and on the poster, but Whip It's message bears not only repeating but adopting as your personal, universal life motto: Be Your Own Hero.  And the way it's presented is fantastic in its simplicity.  There's no obvious Oscar clip, no paint-by-numbers inspiraspeech.  It's uttered almost offhandedly by Kristen Wiig's character, after Bliss professes her admiration for the derby girls.  "Be your own hero."  She's not flippant, but casual, presenting the advice as a goal well within reach.  Of course taking that advice isn't easy, but it's entirely within the realm of possibility.  There's a scary amount of wisdom in those four words, and in the film itself. 

I'm recommending you see Whip It harder than I've ever recommended anything on this blog.  You won't regret it, I promise.  On that note, why are you still sitting here?  Relive your split second, lace up your Barbie skates and GO.


  1. Awesome review. That split second really is a knockout scene in a movie filled with them. What I really enjoyed about the ending was SPOILER NO REALLY, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS HERE that there was no inclination of *what* Bliss would do for school or work in Austin. But you knew, with the Hurl Scouts as her safety net, that she'd succeed no matter what. It's a beautiful illustration about how the activities you love can fuel the rest of your life. I can't wait to see it again and own it. It really is one of the year's best movies.

  2. Lovely review, also thanks for enlightening me that Zoe Bell is in this film...woohoo go New Zealand. I love the idea of roller derby, could never participate as I just can't skate...anyway this review is basically changed my mind about wanting to see this film. Will definitely check it out when it finally gets to NZ :)

  3. Great review--I'm glad you liked it! I was debating whether or not to see looked like I could either like it or be really irritated by it...but it seems fun. If I don't get a chance to see it in theatres, I'll def. netflix it.

  4. I want to see this sooo bad!

    Side note; My cousin was a DC Roller Girl before two torn meniscuses (menisci?). Her skating name? Anita Hammer.

  5. Nick: I liked that plot point too!

    Laura: Zoe is a gorgeous, badass chickie. She doesn't have a ton of lines, but she has such a presence that you're fully aware of every time she's on screen.

    Sadako: If you're worried that it's like Juno, it's not at all. (Incidentally, I liked Juno, but Ellen Page is about the only thing the two films have in common.)

    Nikki: That's SO cool about your cousin! She will appreciate that real roller girls are in the film, and they are amazing to behold.

  6. I am definitely seeing this movie and yes, I totally just peed a little in hearing "Shemale."

  7. i loved this movie! great review!
    and i'm glad i'm not the only one who caught the "shemale" reference :)