Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whip It Reviewed

I went to a roller derby game once. I'd heard a podcast from Stuff Mom Never Told You about the sport, one of my favorite bloggers/TWOP reviewers began playing the game, and in a fortuitous twist, my best friend discovered that Connecticut had a roller derby team (who seem to be quite good, if the game I saw was any indication) and wanted to go. So, I went on YouTube and found a video (this one, actually) to visually illustrate what in the hell would be going on, to go with the audio explanation offered by Molly and Cristen. Because as much as I love Molly and Cristen and the Mom podcast in general, roller derby didn't seem like the kind of thing I'd get just by hearing it. And you know what? Not a bit of that did any good! I was so confused, and after the first 15 or so minutes of general excitement, the fact that I was sitting uncomfortably close to the person next to me began to sink in. It was a fun time, but probably more fun if you can hear the announcer/have any idea how the scoring is happening.

With that being the background of my derby knowledge, I desperately wanted to see Whip It. And I finally did, last night.

It was so much fun, and I think I have a better grasp of derby rules now. I may want to go back, if my friend ever gets a break from grad school homework.

Whip It is, as I said, fun. It isn't the most innovative film ever, but I say that with the caveat that it kind of is, what with its focus on an almost all female cast and a passion that isn't boys (which, sorry Michael Phillips, isn't enough to give the film a "crypto-Sapphic vibe"). Not that boys aren't in it, but getting the boy/keeping the boy isn't what the film's about. The film is about precisely what the poster says: being your own hero. It is about finding your own place, your comfort zone, your tribe. It is about growing up, and having some fun along the way.

Watching Bliss go from the timid, soft-spoken girl we meet at the film's beginning to the more confident and raucous Babe Ruthless, watching her becoming comfortable in her own skin and as a person separate from her best friend, was gratifying. Seeing the mistakes she made and the selfish actions she sometimes took as a 17 year old moving from who she was pre-derby to who she was becoming through roller derby was also pretty cool, helped along by her mentorship with Kristin Wiig's Maggie Mayhem.

And as interesting as I find Bliss and her evolution, the thing that makes the film is how there are no straight up villains. Bliss' mother Brooke, set up as an overbearing pageant-obsessed woman with a psychotic obsession with 1950s womanhood and could have been easily left as such, becomes more understandable through the eyes of Maggie Mayhem, a single mom who lays out the parental element for Bliss. She also comes through with an only semi-awkward sex talk, which just further highlights the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. After Bliss leaves home, it is still her mother she goes to when her life crumbles. Even Juliette Lewis' Iron Maven, the main source of conflict in the World of Derby, isn't left as a cartoonish blight on Bliss' derby happiness. She becomes, though late in the game, a fully three-dimensional character. When she reveals to Bliss that the first time she found anything she was good at was when she discovered derby at 31, a different Iron Maven is revealed - one who is jealously guarding her place as Derby Girl Extraordinaire and who doesn't want to be usurped by a 17 year old who discovered her place a good decade and a half earlier. Iron Maven is just someone late to finding her tribe, who doesn't want to lose it or the feeling of accomplishment it gives her.

Perhaps my favorite part, though, is Bliss' reaction to her boyfriend's potentially cheating ways during his 34 days on tour with his brother's band. Hearing her come back to his, "I didn't even cheat" with "But you didn't call; I would have called", and making that the justification for the break up was all sorts of awesome. It was a confident, strong, willing-to-take-no-bullshit position, one I didn't have at 17 and that I wish I did.

I haven't said anything yet about Pash, Bliss' best friend, and I really should because she is one of the reasons the film works as well. She isn't simply a cheerleader for Bliss' ambition. She is a girl with goals that include getting out of the small Texas town she and Bliss live in. She is protective of Bliss, and somewhat dependent on Bliss. And her angst over feeling like she is losing Bliss to Roller Derby and a rocker boyfriend is allowed and legitimate. It is the depiction of female friendships as complex and deep that also make Whip It a film I loved.

Whip It was, at points, sappy. But that willingness to be sappy, to be silly, to revel in the fun and wonder of a cool life filled with good-hearted and wild people, is partly why the film works. Whip It isn't trying to be too cool for school. And it is all the better for it.

My Favorite Exchange:
BLISS: Oliver is such a great name.
PASH: Yeah, if you like wayward Dickensian orphans.
Grade: A-

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