2009’s Whip It is so much more than what’s presented on the surface. Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is a fantastic film about female relationships presented amongst the bloody contact sport of roller derby.
Bliss Cavendar (played by the superb Ellen Page) is involved in beauty pageants to please her mother, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), a former beauty queen herself, but then, she discovers roller derby and feels a connection with these women with interesting nicknames (i.e. Babe Ruthless, Smashley Simpson) and kick-ass attitudes.
Barrymore revels in quiet scenes as Bliss explores relationships. We see Bliss and her best friend, Pash, sitting on the roof of the restaurant they work in as they contemplate their futures, Bliss and Oliver getting to know one another in fields and swimming pools, and Bliss and her mother forming a truce after the former gets her heart broken. All of these moments are intertwined with women slamming each other into barriers and punching each other in the face.
It’s the action moments where we see Bliss grow stronger and more sure of herself and the quiet moments where we feel empathy for our protagonist. The empathy isn’t just for Bliss, but for our antagonists and supporting cast as well. In film, we’ve seen many incarnations of the pageant mother whose daughter doesn’t want to be involved. But Brooke is a soft-spoken, hard-working mom just trying to get her daughter involved in something—all the while she takes care of her home and keeps the flame going on in her marriage. There’s Bliss’ nemesis, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), the leader of the Hurl Scouts, and number one in the league. Sure she’s jealous of Bliss’ meteoric rise, but there are moments where we see her humanity. Maven eventually confesses that it’s taken her so long to find her passion. This makes us understanding of her sportsmanship about wanting to beat Bliss fair and square.
Whip It is a timeless story about a young woman growing up, learning who she is, and discovering what she loves.
Susana Orozco is a screenwriter and novelist from Phoenix, Arizona. She is currently working on developing her first feature-length film.