October 1, 2009

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Whip It (PG-13)
A teenage girl finds her confidence as she straps on a helmet and dives into the roller derby rink in Whip It, a movie that charms in spite of its flaws.

Bliss (Ellen Page) is a quiet girl who suffers through the beauty pageants her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) forces her to be in, and waitresses at a barbecue shack with her best friend and fellow misfit Pash (Alia Shawkat). Both girls are dreaming of the day they can get out of their small town of Bodeen, Texas. For a break from the high school cliques and pageants and sameness, the girls make occasional trips to Austin (the hip city within driving distance). It’s on one such trip — after Bliss argues with her mother about shoes from a vintage store — that Bliss sees and is almost instantly enchanted by a couple of roller derby players. These girls — tattooed, with extreme hair and short skirts — roll in and out of the shop, almost floating, like punk fairies. Bliss convinces Pash (who has a car) to go to a bout in Austin, and afterward she approaches the captain of the Hurl Scouts, Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig), and tells her that they are her new heroes.

Strap some skates on and be your own hero, Maggie tells Bliss, not realizing that, at 17, Bliss is four years younger than the roller derby minimum of 21.

But Bliss, skating under the name Babe Ruthless, is faster and eventually more confident than her years. For the first time in ages, the Hurl Scouts have a shot at the championship. But will Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), the vicious player for opposing team Holy Rollers, find a way to bring Bliss down? Will Bliss’ prim mother find out about her daughter’s raucous new hobby? Will roller derby get between Pash and Bliss?

Will fishnet stockings stand up to the elbowing and fisticuffs of bout?

Whip It is not a perfect movie but it is a very good recruitment piece for roller derby. After watching these bad-ass girls shove and race their way around the derby track, I wanted to strap on some skates myself. The movie uses the fun and cutting-loose qualities of the sport to tell stories about girls — women really — who find strength, friendship and a place to shine with roller derby.
Where Whip It falls down is in not giving us quite enough of this side of the roller derby story. Bliss is the youngest girl on her team by about 10 years. There’s something deliciously exciting about the idea that a late 20- or 30-something girl could find a place to work out rebellion and aggression. But the movie gives us only hints of this. Where the stories of Bliss’s teammates could go (and in addition to the awesome Wiig the Hurls include the film’s director Drew Barrymore, Eve, Zoe Bell and their coach Andrew Wilson), we instead spend countless yawn-able moments with Bliss and her indie boyfriend Oliver (Landon Pigg), a drip of a boy who doesn’t seem up to the standard of the new confident Bliss.

Whip It shines not only in game-night action but also in its scenes between the frustrated Bliss and her “I want better for you” mother, between Bliss and her sweet-natured father (Daniel Stern) and between fierce friends Bliss and Pash. These scenes seem the most true to the characters the movie is trying to build. B

Rated PG-13 for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material. Directed by Drew Barrymore and written by Shauna Cross, Whip It is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Searchlight. It opens in wide release on Friday, Oct. 2.