This is the fifth installment of a feature we call “Harpy Cinematical Society,” in which we watch a movie (new or old) en masse and then replicate for you our subsequent discussions about it.
The subject of today’s discussion is Whip It!, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page. Bored with her life in Bodeen, Texas, Bliss (Page) secretly tries out for a roller derby league in Austin and becomes her team’s star skater. She works hard to succeed, experiences her first love, bonds with her teammates, fights with her mom and decides to pursue her dreams in Austin.
PilgrimSoul: I enjoyed myself, but I kept watching this movie thinking, “Okay, good, but are you gonna push that a little further – okay, no… Awesome, please let these friends get more screentime – oh, there’s another dude…” In other words – it was good, but I thought that the raw materials of this thing – the subject matter, the actors – would have made for a much better Bechdel-test-passing movie than what Drew Barrymore got out of them.
SarahMC: I really enjoyed myself, but I see what you mean. For instance, I wondered why the people in charge at the league were men. But they were cool guys so I let it slide. I thought Barrymore did a good enough job; I didn’t find the direction distracting. I mostly appreciated that it was a female-focused story that didn’t revolve around men, marriage or babies. They girl doesn’t even get the boy (thank dog, because what a hipster douche)!
PilgrimSoul: Well, she doesn’t get the boy – in fact she rejects him – but she “gives him everything” (yikes), and her reasons for rejecting him are not presented so elegantly that it’s a clear cut case of, “you’re a hipster douche.” There’s some mumbling about not wanting to be “that girl,” but in general I felt like the movie had very little conception of what “that girl” was. Maybe a pageant girl, I don’t know, but I felt like Bliss’s question at the outset of the movie, when she was called “alternative” by some local bully and she asks, “Alternative to what?” was never really answered, and so it felt like we were just supposed to understand what she was being liberated from. Which, in the case of you and I watching that movie, we have some ideas, but I thought to myself that a teenage girl watching this movie, in this age of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, I’m not sure she would have found it as easy as that.
SarahMC: “That girl” who gets used by a two-timing boyfriend? I was taken aback by how quickly she threw him to the curb, when she had no proof he was cheating on her. The dumping was handled sloppily but like most of the movie’s hiccups I just went with it and focused more on Bliss’ main journey. A young woman finds her “bliss” (was that intentional?) competing in an activity she loves. She rebels against conformity and the role her mother and her community have prepared for her. There were definitely feminist undertones, even if they weren’t explicit. And even though Bliss’ mother was an obstacle, the conflict between them is handled tenderly. In fact I thought her mother was one of the more complex characters.
PilgrimSoul: Yeah, and I thought it was almost entirely due to Marcia Gay Harden being a strong enough actress to handle what I think was some uneven direction. The mom is written as pretty shrill and unforgiving, but she gave it a softer edge rather than going for straight satire.
Funnily enough I felt like Ellen Page fared less well. I mean, I still loved her, but Bliss talks sometimes in a babyesque, stoner-dreamy voice, and then other times she’s as sharp and sarcastic as Juno. I thought this was particularly apparent in the pool-sex scene, where Page was constantly clutching knees to her chest and twisting away from the camera, as though she were uncomfortable – and that didn’t fit with the fact that diving into the pool was presented as Bliss’s idea. That scene was well shot, but sort of unnecessary.
SarahMC: It was sort of nonsensical. I think the song hypnotized me (“Your Arms Around Me” by Jens Lekman) and convinced me that it was intensely sexy at the time.
Page did sound like she was whispering a lot of the time. Maybe that was her way of conveying nervousness around the popular kids or her discomfort at the beauty pageants. Her demeanor shifted when she wasn’t truly being herself. How adorable is Alia Shawkat? I liked that her character was bookish and academically motivated and sexual and fun-loving. I wish there were more multi-dimensional female characters in the movies.
PilgrimSoul: Shawkat was adorable, but I was pissed that they had her call herself fat and hook up inexplicably with the guy at the diner. Multi-dimensional female characters are the bomb; I’m just not sure this was more than seeing some actresses have fun. Which in and of itself might redeem the whole thing.