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Movie Review: Whip It

2009 October 23
by Julie Clawson

whip-it-posterThis is what a girl power movie should be. I went to see Whip It because it looked fun and was a totally Austin film (there’s something fun about sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse watching a movie where the characters go to the Drafthouse…). I discovered though the most genuine and life-affirming coming of age story that I have seen in a long time. The story is that of small-town Texas girl, Bliss (Ellen Page), who escapes her mother’s beauty pageant dreams for her life by entering a roller derby league. Sounds like the standard cliched formulaic “girl discovers herself” plotline. But Whip It acknowledges the cliche and gives the predictable a twist.

This is a film about a girl being empowered to find herself. But it does so while admitting that life is messy. You have the standard plotline of restricted kid being held back by irrational parents, but it is also more than that. Bliss’ mother isn’t just a controlling mom shoving 1950’s stereotypes of pageant queens down her daughter’s thoughts. She loves her kids and wants them to have more opportunities than she ever had. Bliss’ doesn’t pursue roller derby to rebel, she does it because she has discovered a part of herself she never knew existed. Sure, there is conflict with her family, but the take-home message is that the individual always has to exist in community as a vital part of a family. Bliss realizes that she needs her family and her friends even as she comes into her own.

What she realizes she doesn’t need is the boy. Like any in girl grows up movie, Bliss meets the guy, falls in love, and gets hurt. And doesn’t get back together. She realizes that she doesn’t want to be “that girl” who allows herself to be hurt by guys and who has to change who she is for them. She regrets giving everything to her boyfriend, but comes through the pain more aware of who she is and knowing that she doesn’t need a boyfriend in order to be a whole person. This isn’t a “men – who needs them” message, but it’s a strong reminder that a woman’s worth and identity is not defined by the man she’s attached to.

I also loved that her experience in roller-derby wasn’t based on success but on being empowered by the experience. Unlike the typical guy sports film where the team ends up winning the state championship (and hence proving that hard work pays off blah, blah, blah…), when Bliss’s team comes in second place they don’t despair or choose to learn from their defeat or work harder next time – they break into a joyous team chant of “We’re number 2! We’re number2!” happy in their accomplishment of playing the game. They were a team and they proved to themselves as women that they could do this thing. That, not winning, was what mattered. I loved it.

Whip It was all about this healthy empowerment. It was the story of a girl discovering her own strength in community. She can be fierce and powerful and good, really good, at what she does. She doesn’t need to define herself by the warped standards of this world. She can be herself. This is the sort of story that we need to hear more often. Instead of the standard plotlines of “princess in need of rescue” or “someday my prince will come” found in most girl coming of age movies, Whip It provides a realistic role model I wouldn’t mind my daughter looking up to. Instead of telling women that we are defined by our bodies, our relationship with a man, our ability to compete and win, or our ability to be nice and compliant – we can hear that it’s okay to be ourselves in all of our glory and messiness.

But lest you think that Whip It is just a sappy after school special, remember that this is a movie about roller derby. It has action, fantastic skating scenes, and tough self-assured women all over the place. In short, it’s a fun movie that (thankfully) isn’t just drivel and fluff.


6 Responses leave one →
  1. Troy permalink
    October 23, 2009

    It looked like a typical coming of age movie or chick flick. Your review demonstrates otherwise, thanks!

    Ellen Page is so cute and known for her first movie that I worry she’d get typecast. Sounds like she pulls off this role though.

  2. October 23, 2009

    I agree wholeheartedly, especially about you insight into the mom and the boy. These were much more nuanced characters than a movie like this typically gets to portray.

  3. October 24, 2009

    I agree with your review – especially about the tension between Bliss and her mother and about her reaction to learning a hard life lesson with the boy. This is one DVD I will be buying when it’s available. Great message, great fun, and I love Ellen Page! :)

  4. October 24, 2009

    Awesome review, Julie! I’m definitely going to see this one. :^)

  5. Karl permalink
    October 26, 2009

    That sounds good. I’ll have to check it out, and keep it in mind for my own girls down the road.

  6. Brian permalink
    January 5, 2010

    I kinda hated Ellen Page for her right-wing roles in Juno (selling your kid down the river is better than abortion), Hard Candy (“I’m a vigilante and I don’t need proof beyond my gut feeling”) and Mouth2mouth (right-wing-ish), but this one has its heart in the right place, albeit again! a bit of a sappy story line. But I’m kinda sure that Barrymores “family theme” wasn’t intended as a typical “family values” thing. (whatever THAT means these days, all these “family values” politicians cheat like hell.

    And also, Page’s soooo pretty! hard to hate all that ….. 😉

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