Some time ago in this space, I talked about my movie “man-crush” on Tom Cruise—and pointed out that I could (and still can) enjoy his work in films without spending a lot of time being unduly distracted by the myriad issues surrounding his private life that have been publicly aired. I respect and admire the presence and skill he brings to the screen as an actor, and won’t avoid Cruise films because of rumors he might be gay, or because he jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, or because he is overly enamored of a religion that encourages its followers to act in ways I’d consider pretty abusive to its adherents and heretics (as if those shortcomings make Scientology unique among faiths). Maybe that’s a personal weakness of some kind, but I admit to it. I spend little to no time thinking about those things when I’m busy enjoying a good Tom Cruise movie.
Recently I had something of the opposite experience, and it was just as terrific—and to me, just as legitimate a way of appreciating the talents and work of a smart, gifted actor—when I sat down to revisit Ellen Page‘s star turn in Whip It, easily one of the most underrated and marvelously entertaining movies of recent years.
Whip It is about the journey to be finally, at last, true to oneself despite your innermost fears and the protestations of others. Page’s lead character Bliss Cavendar is the vessel for this story; she is a small-town Texas teenager whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden), a former beauty queen, keeps Bliss and her younger sister glued to pursuing the ideal of “traditional” womanhood by insisting on their participation in the pageant scene she knows well. Bliss finds her mother aided in this quest in no small part by the genial indifference of her father (Daniel Stern), who may well recognize the ways in which his daughter feels utterly alienated by this culture but is unable (or uninterested enough) to disrupt the harmony of his household by ever challenging his wife’s controlling temperament.
Bliss enjoys only a limited escape from her suffocating home life by working as a waitress at the Oink Joint with best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat). Even there, though, Bliss suffers the withering scorn of her peers, who delight in mocking her when they visit the eatery. Bliss’ failed blue hair-dye job on the day of a pageant appearance that thoroughly embarrasses her mother quickly brands her with a reputation:
“What are you now, ‘alternative’?”
This is not a community that embraces diversity, it would seem—so Bliss is more than eager to hitch bus rides out of town to secretly join “The Hurl Scouts,” a women’s roller derby squad she first catches sight of when shopping for new shoes in a store that’s more alternative than her terminally un-hip mom first realizes. Even though she is forced to lie about her age in order to try out, and even though the last time she wore skates “they had Barbies on them,” Bliss has natural abilities and determination that endear her to Razor (Andrew Wilson)—the Scouts’ ever-optimistic, put-upon coach, who is busy writing up a new team playbook he is certain will lead his last-place squad to an eventual win.
No, these ladies aren’t champions, but for the very first time, Bliss finds herself welcomed and feels like she belongs. We never know her new friends by anything other than the exotic-pun nicknames meant to encourage the idolatry of fans and intimidate opponents—names like Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore).
All the while pretending to be taking SAT classes, Bliss begins to play as the newest member of the Hurl Scouts, and the stage is eventually set for an all-important showdown with a “bad girl” team named The Holy Rollers, headed up by the surly Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), a veteran of the track who sees Bliss—now nicknamed “Babe Ruthless” for her spunk and speed—as a threat to her own dominance of the local scene.
Naturally, Bliss’ parents eventually find out about her deception—and unsurprisingly, her mother is outraged, and insists her daughter abandon the sport she is certain will render her child unemployable and miserable for life. Worse, an all-important match is scheduled for the same day as the “Blue Bonnet” pageant, and Bliss’ mother has paid for a custom-made dress. Still worse, Bliss’ tentative first-love with a musician (Landon Pigg) she meets at the derby looks ready to fall into tatters after he goes on tour and she spots photos of a groupie wearing the T-shirt she gave him to take on the road.
And maybe worst of all, her arch-nemesis on the track has discovered Bliss is really 17, and therefore ineligible to play…unless she secures permission from a parent.
A less substantial movie would make this story all about whether or not the Hurl Scouts team can finally become winners, but Whip It is chiefly about whether or not Bliss Cavendar can muster the personal courage it will take to live true to herself—and then whether or not she will be aided in that courage by those who love her and say they want to see her succeed. That story has a metaphorical reflection in the title of the film.
The “whip” is a move Bliss makes more than once on the derby track; it involves her latching onto a teammate’s arm from behind so that they can then “whip” her forward, around them, at an aggressive speed, in order to score points. Tellingly related to the story, it is a move that requires daring and trust on the part of the scoring player, and the selfless spirit of teamwork from the partner who rockets their teammate ahead of them while clearing the way.
In the years since Whip It made its smaller-than-what-it-deserved splash in theaters, Ellen Page has forged an offscreen reputation that is the polar opposite of the kind you typically associate with celebrities. She is known to be highly intelligent (what a sad thing to be so rarely noted in the business, especially for actresses); the self-described “tiny Canadian” has cultivated a social-networking following on Twitter; and, for better or worse, she somewhat supplanted the degree of fame she has earned as an actor, at least for now, by way of her notable coming-out as gay with the emotional speech she delivered at the Human Rights Campaign’s “Time to Thrive” conference in February.
The tipping point for me sitting down to re-watch Whip It (on the very nice-looking Blu-ray) came right after Page’s recent, amusing Twitter crusade to convince co-star and offscreen friend Alia Shawkat to sign up for the social networking tool.
(Yes: I “follow” Page’s tweets. No: she didn’t re-name my dog)
I found it impossible to reconsider Whip It without the awareness of Page’s coming-out playing in the back of my mind throughout the film—almost like an audio commentary on an extra soundtrack. And while the movie is not explicitly a “lesbian” film, it is very easy to see it now as layered with all kinds of relevant subtexts in plot and imagery, not completely unlike the kind of meta-watching one can enjoy viewing James Whale’s films. Page’s public acknowledgment of her sexuality absolutely makes the film a richer experience—but it’s important to say also that you don’t need that awareness or subtext at all to still enjoy Whip It as “simply” a hugely effective, warm-hearted mix of comedy, drama, inspiration, and sporting wit.
Apart from Page’s wonderful work, the rest of the ensemble cast delivers performances of grit and good cheer. Harden and Stern make a believable couple as parents adrift with a misfit child; the Hurl Scouts are a truly winning bunch, every one of them; and careful attention is given even to the smaller roles of Page’s employer at the Oink Joint, played by Carlo Alban, and Jimmy Fallon’s game announcer, who makes the most of a minor supporting role with snappy patter and desperate gestures for female attention. Credit is due in large part to how well screenwriter Shauna Cross adapted her own 2007 novel, Derby Girl.
It’s a little mystifying to me that Drew Barrymore, who made her directing debut here, hasn’t helmed another feature. Whip It has an earthy, energetic flow; the roller derby sequences are exciting—and while I’m sure there are stunt doubles sometimes, it’s clear the actors do a good bit of their own skating. You can also find neat little visual flourishes throughout, like the scene where Bliss bemoans the state of her love life: The sequence begins with Bliss slumped on the floor by the refrigerator, a nearby magnet externalizing her heartache like a thought balloon, only to evolve into a symbol of the feelings shared between Bliss and her mother. These little touches are delicious to me, and the movie contains a great many similar little pleasures.
There could be all sorts of reasons why Barrymore may not have directed a feature again, I suppose, but it really must be observed that the former child star (and now occasional Adam Sandler collaborator) delivered a knock-down-impressive first feature as director, and maintained an admirable humility by not devoting any extra attention to her own (quite enjoyable) supporting role onscreen. Everyone in Whip It gets at least one or two great moments in command of the spotlight.
The definitive charge of the film, though, comes with our rooting for Bliss Cavendar to take possession of her own identity and challenge those around her to be accepting of who she really is. It’s impossible to imagine this storyline didn’t hold real resonance for Page while she was still operating “in the closet”—trying to make her way in a demanding and absurdly competitive business that, while boasting of its tolerances and liberal ways of thinking, nevertheless makes it a regular habit of foisting certain ways of looking, and certain ways of being, onto any actor hoping to make a serious go of it. (I’m using that term “actor” as a gender-neutral, but I should probably emphasize the problem is more acute for actresses)
So yes, contrary to the way I tend to watch Tom Cruise movies, I appreciated the value of watching this film with that added layer of awareness—that sense of how the film’s story could be seen as analogous to the real life of its star. I loved Whip It a lot before I knew Ellen Page was gay; having that knowledge now only increases my admiration for the movie, and her performance in it.
A straight-guy movie lover maintaining a “crush” on Ellen Page might be regarded by some as being even more unreasonably strange than having one on Cruise…but that’s on them, and it’d be a strange thing only for those who just don’t “get it.” But I have it, and I own it, and I love her work, and I want to see her go on to play a rewarding and ever-surprising variety of roles—or really, any kind of role she wants to play—and I will always be rooting for her to win.
To quote The Hurl Scouts’ coach: Now go getcha some!