METERany of the best teen movies fails to make an impact at the box office. For every hit like Clueless, there is an equally great but inversely successful movie like Empire Records or Heathers, which failed to recoup their budgets. It’s a shame, because many of these supposedly unsuccessful teen movies are actually some of the smartest and finest. Case in point: Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut.
Starring Elliot Page, Whip is the story of a teenage girl named Bliss Cavendar who lives in the fictional town of Bodeen, Texas. Her life is small and rigidly predetermined: going to school, going to work at a degrading themed fast food restaurant, going to beauty pageants that her former beauty queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden) participates in. Emotions are few and far between, coming mostly in the form of cheap rebellion, like when best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) dyes Bliss’s hair blue moments before a show. Bliss is not an absolute rebellious girl, she’s socially meek and generally considerate, but she dreams of a bigger life than Bodeen has to offer.
His saving grace comes in the form of a flyer advertising a local roller derby league that he chose on a shopping trip with his family in Austin. Enamored by the idea of attending a roller skating demonstration, Pash and Bliss travel to Austin one night under the pretext of going to a soccer game. Bliss is captivated by the demo and, on the casual advice of a player she talks to after the game, decides to be her own hero and join the league, becoming the newest member of the united but spectacularly bad Hurl Scouts.
I’m pretty sure any reader of this piece could fairly accurately plot the following plot points without having seen Whip It. That is not a slight, however. The beauty of this film lies in its witty and emotionally incisive script and its magnetic and naturalistic interpretations. There’s no question that Whip It is one of the best-cast teen movies in recent memory – in addition to Page, Shawkat, and Harden, the film features Kristen Wiig playing the role of Maggie Mayhem, a derby player who takes on Bliss under your protection; Juliette Lewis as a bitter bully from another derby team; Barrymore as a clumsy, easy-to-shoot, and perpetually battered Hurl Scout; and Jimmy Fallon as the derby league’s track manager. Ari Graynor and Tarantino’s favorite Zoe Bell also appear as Hurl Scouts. Each derby player is memorable in her own way, perhaps due to the fact that the film was based in part on screenwriter Shauna Cross’s experiences as a derby player in Austin.
Though traditional in its narrative rhythms, there are wrinkles in Whip It’s’s perspective that make it a smarter and more satisfying watch than the traditional teen fare. The film features a romantic subplot, but it is almost comically overlooked, almost as if it was inserted just to demonstrate its unimportance compared to Bliss’s commitment to roller derby and to her friends and family. And while teen movies often privilege the experience and vigor of youth, Whip It is unique in its sensitive treatment of generational divisions – though much of the film revolves around Bliss’s insistence on her escape from Bodeen , some key pieces of the dialogue at the end. The moments shift the emotional weight of the film, forcing the character, and viewers, to reconsider his headstrong attitude, as well as our cultural obsession with youth.
This element of Whip It, the way it travels not in a big emotional arc, but as a series of more subtle attitude swings, is one of my favorite things about it, and part of the reason I’ve done it again. see so many times. In adolescence, people and emotions often feel black and white; It’s the small, revealing conversations, rather than the big epiphanic moments, that often alert us to the complexities of other people. Whip It captures this transfer better than almost any other teen movie I’ve ever seen.
In the ten years since the release of Whip It’s, I’ve seen it many, many times, and each time I feel confused by its lack of commercial success or, at the very least, its cult status. Now that it’s airing on Stan, there’s a chance it might find an audience again.
In many ways, that’s the perfect broadcast for a movie like this: one about being patient, going at your own pace, and taking time to find yourself.
• Whip It is broadcast in Australia by Stan
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