I try to avoid prejudicial feelings for or against a script. One of the many goals of a critic is to try to look at something with as much objectivity as possible, before giving a combination of empirical analysis and the unavoidable subjective opinion. No matter how much we try, we always have baggage that colors our read on a piece of art (or commerce, in the case of lesser fare). The goal is to leave that baggage on the winding airport carousel long enough to spit out a halfway decent review.
I mention this not to be more pretentious than usual but to explain my initial prejudice against Whip It upon receiving the script. All I knew was a logline: A teenage girl becomes a roller-derby queen. Now, a few years ago, IFC produced a fantastic series called The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman, starring Laura Kightlinger (who created the show and served as head writer) and Nicholle Tom as bottom-feeding wannabe screenwriters trying to make it in Hollywood. One running gag was Jackie’s pet project, a story about a Depression-era roller derby queen (modeled after her aunt) that Jackie frequently hyped but never actually wrote. (It reached a point where the idea was actually stolen because of this combination of hype and laziness.) IFC unceremoniously canceled the show during the 2007 writers’ strike, when they opted instead to produce improv-heavy shows that didn’t have WGA affiliation.
The problem is, Kightlinger portrayed the idea of a film about a roller-derby queen as such an absurd, meaningless aspiration that it’s become impossible for me to look at anything that even remotely involves roller skates without laughing derisively. Luckily, that doesn’t happen too often, but how could I not laugh when Hollywood takes a ridiculous idea seriously?
Here’s how: The script is really damn good. Adapting her own novel (which is based in large part on her own teenage misadventures in a roller derby), Shauna Cross doesn’t make the usual adaptation mistakes of overstuffing too much material into too little space or, worse, chopping so much of the novel out that the truncated screenplay barely makes sense (I’m looking at you, Dreamcatcher). The script has a lot of characters and subplots to balance, but Cross does an expert job of keeping all the plates in the air while driving the narrative to a satisfying conclusion.
“Satisfying” is not to be confused with “unpredictable,” because this is a studio-friendly coming-of-age chick flick. It hits a number of familiar beats, but Cross takes novel approaches to these moments, making them feel fresh and believable instead of hackneyed and overdone.
The story beats out the path of a traditional sports movie with an even-more-traditional romantic subplot. It follows 16-year-old Bliss (played in the film by Ellen Page), whose overbearing mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), has forced her into a life of Texas pageantry. Bliss is a rebellious free spirit at heart, but she continues to do the pageants for her mother’s sake. However, when temporary blue highlights won’t wash out, Bliss becomes a laughing stock, humiliating her mother more than herself.
Bliss tries to lead a life of quiet rebellion, but she’s largely unsuccessful until she’s drawn to an ad for a female roller-derby group in Austin. She drags along Pash (Alia Shawkat), her best friend and closest confidante, and volunteers to audition after the speed, violence, and riot-grrl atmosphere entrances her. You should probably know that every team and individual has a nickname that ranges from stupid (Smashley Simpson, Paris Killton) to clever (Robin Graves, Moxie Cotton), because Bliss develops an instant rapport with Malice in Wonderland (Kristen Wiig, called “Maggie Mayhem” in the film) and an instant crush on indie-rocker Oliver (Landon Pigg).
It wouldn’t be a sports movie if it didn’t turn out that Bliss gets put on the losingest team in the league and didn’t have to learn to combine her emotional problems (repressed anger about her domineering mother and rival pageant contestants) with the sport. They’re initially impressed with her speed, but she’s timid during races until she learns to channel her anger into vicious attacks on rival skaters. Cross elevates the sports-movie clichés by taking archetypes to unexpected places – her “relationship” with Oliver is disastrous instead of the film’s cheesy heart, and Pash develops an intense combination of jealousy and concern over Bliss’s time spent in the land of seemingly super-cool adults. Instead of a rival team, Bliss’s mustache-twirling villain takes the form of Dinah Might (Juliette Lewis, “Iron Maven” in the film), a skater who somehow feels being the star player of the worst team merits smug superiority. After insulting and pummeling Bliss during practices (and even during competitions, despite the risk to the team), Dinah puts Bliss’s roller-derby career in jeopardy when she finds out she’s 16, not 22 (she has to be at least 21 to participate).
The script also allows for impressive complexity in its portrayal of the parents. One of the criticisms frequently hurled at John Hughes (deservedly, I might add) was the fact that he made all the adult characters stupid, one-dimensional cartoons. That works in the Hughes teen universe, because that’s how most teenagers view adult authority figures. But Whip It isn’t strictly from Bliss’s point of view, so it allows Brooke and Bliss’s father, Earl (Daniel Stern, in a performance that made me think, “Why don’t we see more of Daniel Stern?”), to be real people. They’re flawed, decent people. Brooke doesn’t force Bliss to do pageants because she’s an evil tyrant obsessed with wire hanger usage—Bliss has a hard time standing up to her, so she simply doesn’t, and Brooke sincerely believes both that Bliss can win and that Bliss is getting something out of the experience.
The roller derby allows Bliss to finally stand up to her mother, but it’s not the moment of triumph one might expect. It’s a scene coated in years of guilt and fear. Bliss doesn’t want to let Brooke down, but she wants to break free and do something she feels passionate about instead of something she does to make her mother happy. The derby also forces Earl to stand up to Brooke, possibly for the first time. Cross portrays him as a well-meaning, hard-working man of quiet dignity. He loves Brooke and is committed to her, but he mostly hides from confrontation. She hates football, so he pretends to work late on Monday nights during football season so he can watch at least one game in peace. That’s the sort of guy he is. Bliss has suddenly become the son he wishes he had, and he has to work hard to convince Brooke that a girl doing roller derby is the same thing as a boy playing football—something Brooke would have no problem with. Both parents have to confront the difficult notion that what they want for their daughter doesn’t match what their daughter wants, and she’s reached the age where they have to let go of their dreams for her.
I also want to highlight the dialogue a little. Frequently, dialogue is the major strength of a screenwriter, so I don’t talk too much about it unless it’s glaringly awful or spectacularly great. “Spectacularly great” might be too hyperbolic for Whip It, but Cross does two admirable things. First, she gives each character—young and old, male and female, smart and stupid—individual voices. It’s extremely rare that I can read a script and know who’s talking without reading the characters’ names. Second, and perhaps more importantly, she lets the teenagers sound like—well, not quite as dunderheaded or inarticulate as your average teen, but they’re also not hyperverbal pop-culture obsessives with the powers to instantly string together self-consciously flowery statements that also somehow rhyme. Cross keeps Whip It refreshingly free of such annoying eccentricities, which unfortunately seem to have plagued every post-Juno teen comedy with the exception of Lottery Ticket and Norman. She also never tries to force the humor, which comes from the characters’ foibles more than their expansive knowledge of arcane entertainment trivia.
After falling in love with this screenplay, I found myself worried. I heard Drew Barrymore, who I generally like as an actress but who completely missed the point of Charlie’s Angels in the film adaptations (which she produced and allegedly had the same level of creative input as John Travolta in Battlefield Earth), planned to make this her directorial debut. She had cast Ellen Page, whose breakout role happened to be starring as one of those over-caffeinated, vaguely obnoxious teens that drive me nuts, as Bliss. It seemed like a project destined for a big-time botching, and that scared me.
Within five minutes of the film, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a surprisingly strong debut, Barrymore nailed both the tone and the verisimilitude, bringing an impressive visual sense that reminded me a bit of Cameron Crowe (before he was crushed under the weight of ego-driven vanity projects), in the sense that she doesn’t let the visuals detract from the characters and the drama. Page, too, reinvents herself yet again, playing Bliss as differently from her characters in Juno and Hard Candy as possible. Yet, it’s not a self-conscious attempt at distancing herself from other roles. She simply takes the cues from the script and plays Bliss as appropriately timid and somewhat introverted.
The film doesn’t stray too much from the script. Among other things, it lingers a bit more on Bliss’s romance with Oliver, but that actually makes the inevitable table-turning more dramatic and crushing for Bliss. Barrymore manages to take several key moments in Whip It and make them more intense and palpable than Cross’s already good script. The Charlie’s Angels movies misunderstood the TV series’ fundamental (if silly) point, that attractive women can do whatever they want without having to resort to using their sexuality (the films’ mandate seems to be, “The sleazier, the better!”), but Whip It is a story Barrymore knows inside and out. She knows the right buttons to push to make a good script into a great movie.
A great movie that tanked, doing worse in its opening weekend than noted flop The Invention of Lying and barely making back its $15 million production budget (which doesn’t mean it turned a profit, if you factor in backend points and marketing, but it probably at least broke even on DVD). Ellen Page became an Oscar-nominated teen hero after Juno, and Drew Barrymore has gone from troubled wild child to beloved Hollywood icon. Why didn’t Whip It get an Easy A-style publicity blitz? Is Hollywood afraid of challenging the teen audience with thoughtful, well-made entertainment? It’s probably safe to say the answer is “Yes,” which is as depressing as it is frustrating.