Find that thing that makes you really pissed off and use it.
—Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig)
As Whip It begins, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is in the process of disappointing her mother—again. Eager to assert some modicum of pride and order in her dreary world, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) has entered Bliss in yet another beauty pageant. Bliss has duly messed up, dying her hair a rather startling blue just before her scheduled speech before judges. Following the performance, Brooke can’t contain her upset. “I don’t know,” she says, “whether you’re trying to sabotage your chances or it’s a biological urge to make your mama look like a jackass.” In either case, she adds, “I’m sorry that these pageants don’t live up to your high moral standards.”
Bliss sighs. The charges aren’t unexpected or even unwarranted, but she just knows her fate cannot be competing in the Miss Bluebonnet pageant. And so she resists passive aggressively, just as her mom—former pageant queen and current mail deliverer in small-town Texas—makes clear her own desires. Their conflict heads toward a crisis when Bliss and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak off one night to see a roller derby in Austin. Instantly smitten instantly, Bliss is thrilled when one of the skaters, the Hurl Scouts’ Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), invites her to next week’s tryouts.
As this set-up suggests, Whip It is not looking to break new ground. As Bliss shows a natural talent and speed on the banked track, she’s given a training schedule and a new name, Babe Ruthless. She immerses herself in her new, frankly exhausting routine, lying to her mother about where she’s going and relying on Pash, who works with her at the Oink Joint, to back her up. Pash is right to worry that Bliss is losing sight of what counts (“I’m trying to get out of this armpit of a town just as much as you are,” Pash protests, though the movie never notes how much more difficult that effort may be for her). But Bliss remains rather conveniently blinded: she loves the loud crowds, raucous teammates including Smashley Simpson [first-time director Drew Barrymore] and Rosa Sparks [Eve]), and encouragement from coach Raven (Andrew Wilson), not to mention the stylishly torn fishnets and slam-bam violence that leaves her thighs bruised and her chest knocked breathless.
The film suggests her proclivity comes from her dear dad Earl (Daniel Stern), a football fan who watches games and drinks beer behind Brooke’s back. Following his lead, Bliss keeps her new life secret for as long as she can, including a too cute romance with a self-admiring band singer, Oliver (Landon Pigg), and a slightly less-cute rivalry with the Holy Rollers’ star skater, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). As Bliss is too smart and self-aware to be wrong for too long, both relationships loom large as Learning Experiences, which means you won’t be at all surprised by where they go.
Such predictability leaves Barrymore’s first film looking caught up. On one level, it’s a breakout effort (girl-power players, unite!). On another, it’s more of the same (Hollywood plotters, again). The movie relies heavily on previous indie business (see: Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Bring It On, even the schmaltzier Ice Princess, and Todd Solondz’s bleaker Dollhouse), focused too tightly on Bliss’ story even as Brooke’s undeveloped history (perhaps Earl’s, too) start to seem more compelling. Whip It does plainly want to resolve the mother-daughter relationship, but by the time it gets around to it, Brooke has nearly fallen by a small-minded mom wayside. If not for Harden’s sublime performance (and a little help from Maggie Mayhem’s seeming afterthought of a subplot), the movie would be completely regular.
For what Whip It does make clear is that all girls are expected to perform, whether expectations are embodied by parents or audiences. With her 2004 MTV documentary, Choose or Lose: The Best Place to Start, Barrymore revealed an endearing sympathy for kids’ efforts to sort through life’s options. (Surely, it’s no coincidence that her own sorting through has been so gratingly public, as she has emerged more or less intact from a family of famous actors, and performed her romantic situations and creative alliances for too many cameras.) When Whip It does veer slightly off course—when Lewis or Harden or Wiig reveals a bit of experience not usually seen on movie screens—you get the feeling that all that thinking about performing pays off after all.