Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. Along with romantic comedies and inspirational sports films, there are not a lot of surprises to be had. I do not foresee anyone completely reinventing any of these genres. I am not sure it is even possible to do such a thing, although I am definitely open to the possibility. Frankly, I would love to see it happen. Until that time, I will be content to keep my eye out for those that look interesting and those that look like they make the genre conventions work for them. Enter Whip It, a coming of age story that makes the conventions work in its favor and in turn delivers a superior cinematic experience.
Whip It does not reinvent the genre, it does not do anything particularly new, yet it is able to work and massage the genre in such a way that it feels fresh. Perhaps it is the directorial presence of Drew Barrymore in her first outing behind the camera. Maybe it is the work of Shauna Cross who wrote the screenplay based on her own novel. Or maybe it is the cast that elevates the material to the next level. In the end, it has to be the combination of all three of those elements. If one of them were to fail the potential for this to fold like a house of cards greatly increases; at the very least the failure of one could potentially expose some cracks in the armor.
The movie centers on a teenage girl named Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). She is a smart girl with a slight rebellious streak, demonstrated by the dying of her hair prior to a beauty pageant. After said pageant, her strict mother (Marcia Gay Harden) lectures her on life lessons and potential opportunities down the road of life. It is clear that Bliss has different ideas on where her life should go. It is also clear that she does not quite know where to go herself.
Things take a change when Bliss is shopping in a secondhand shop and a couple of women on roller skates roll in and leave fliers on the counter. Bliss has a look of awe on her face as she watches them leave. She picks one up and her mind starts to turn. Could this be an opportunity to find her, well, bliss?
She lies to her parents and heads off to try out for a roller derby team. Surprisingly, she makes the team. Bliss falls in love with roller derby and her teammates, including Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), and Rosa Sparks (Eve).
Her work to be with the team puts a strain on her relationship with her family and friends. However, in spite of the relationship difficulties this causes, she is learning so much more about herself. Of course, she also learns more about guys as she is attracted to a singer in a local band. She strikes up a relationship with him, which is not without its own pitfalls.
It is through these combined experiences and their repercussions that Bliss learns what it is like to grow up. She must come to terms with her successes and also with the repercussions of her actions. You see, they do not just affect her, but her family and friends. People count on you even if you do not realize it, meaning you cannot just be thinking about yourself as you go through life.
Now this is beginning to sound like a Hallmark movie. Believe me, it isn't, as typical as it sounds. You could probably time the story beats and predict what is going to happen when. Fortunately, this movie has such energy and exuberance about it that is downright infectious. Even the "bad guys" are nice.
The cast are perfect in their roles. There are even moments that deviate slightly from the expected and truly hit home on an emotional level. In particular there is a scene between Ellen Page and Kristen Wiig that goes against the grain and speaks to the heart of the situation that Bliss is in at that moment and the scene is completely unexpected. Then there is the scene shared by Page and Marcia Gay Harden where Bliss opens up to her mother in a moment of unexpected truth. These moments get past the audience's barrier and really bring everything home. It is credit to the cast to have such great chemistry with each other.
Writer Shauna Cross injects a lot of herself into the story, as she is a member of a roller derby team. She draws on her experience and the reality behind the people who play it. Cross's script takes the traditional framework of the coming of age drama and populates it with characters who could exist in the real world and gives them dialogue that does not smack of Hollywood, but instead rings true.
As for the direction from Drew Barrymore? Surprisingly good. I would not call it spectacular or anything, but it does the job at hand. She is not flashy with the camera and does not go above and beyond in trying to be stylish. Still, it is clear that she was paying attention on all of those sets she has been on over the years. The result is a mature, confident film that works much better than it probably should.
Bottom line. This movie succeeds on many levels. It is not a perfect film as it is still a familiar story that does not break new ground. It works because of all the elements I mentioned, strong performances, genuine emotion, good writing, all things needed to make a successful movie. It also makes me want to watch some roller derby.