It’s pretty simple, really: Deep in the heart of Texas, electric blue hair doesn’t charm beauty pageant judges. Capably coifed updos, poise and sparkle do.
But 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar just doesn’t fit the template, thanks to her locks’ unnaturally blue hue and her disdain for normal social protocol. Still, her mother, Brooke, hopes her teen will eventually realize what’s best for her. In Mom’s mind, that means blossoming into a mild-mannered, articulate and feminine young lady—exactly what Brooke had been during her own pageant days.
In Bliss’ mind, however, becoming a woman doesn’t require wearing lacy gloves and competing for a pageant trophy that’s as big as she is. After all, Bliss’ hero is Amelia Earhart. Why? Because she was strong. Brave. Revolutionary. She did what people said she couldn’t and probably shouldn’t do. Which is exactly what Bliss wants to do … except she’s not sure precisely what that is yet.
Clarity comes courtesy of a roller derby team that skates serendipitously past Bliss in a store. She’s entranced: They’re confident. Having fun. Living life on their terms. They’re everything Bliss feels she is not. So when the women leave flyers for their next competition, Bliss grabs one.
Soon Bliss and her BFF, Pash, sneak off to Austin to see the Holy Rollers skate against (read: knock the tar out of) the Hurl Scouts. After the match—which the Scouts lose profoundly and proudly—Hurl girl Maggie Mayhem challenges the spellbound Bliss by saying, “Be your own hero.”
Which, of course, means trying out for the team.
Bliss digs up her old Barbie skates and rolls around her neighborhood to practice. She works up some speed and lands a slot on the Hurl Scouts—never mind that she’s hiding her new hobby from her parents and lying about her age in order to qualify.
And so while Mom and Dad (a beer-drinkin’, football-watchin’, good-ol’-boy named Earl) think their daughter is diligently studying for her SATs, Bliss boards buses to Austin to assume her new alter ego: Babe Ruthless.
Fortunately for Bliss, through the acceptance and friendship of her new team, she discovers who she really wants to be in life.
Unfortunately for Bliss, her mom’s vision of her future still has more to do with manicures and tiaras, not roller skates, knee pads and corny pseudonyms.
Once things get rolling, it seems as if Whip It might devolve into a predictable diatribe against the tyranny of heartless, clueless parents. After all, Brooke seems determined to remake Bliss in her image and seems oblivious to the fact that her daughter has zero interest in the world of pageantry.
But the film ends up offering a much more complex take on Bliss’ relationship with her mom. Brooke’s domineering ways, we learn, are not because she must control her daughter at all costs. Instead, they come from a deep desire to prepare her daughter to thrive in the real world and from the fact that she grew up without a mother of her own. In the end, both mother and daughter close a bit of the gap that separates them.
Earl is supportive of his daughter, to the point of trying to help his wife understand why Bliss’ new interest is so important to her. And despite some misunderstandings, Bliss and Pash’s friendship is generous and forgiving. They endure each other’s faults and grow in their understanding and appreciation of each other.
When it comes to the Hurl Scouts, Bliss develops a special connection with Maggie Mayhem, who turns out to be a single mom. Bliss wants Maggie to side with her in her conflict with her mother, but Maggie wisely tells Bliss that caring parents are always good—even if they are overprotective at times.
As for the Hurl Scouts’ work ethic, well, it doesn’t exist at first. But Bliss and the Scouts’ coach, Razor, want to see improvement. They want discipline and actual competition rather than a comedic slaughter in the rink. Their passion spurs the Scouts on a quest for excellence.
By the film’s conclusion, Bliss apologizes to everyone she’s lied to, namely her parents and her teammates.
At a beauty pageant, a young contestant says that the person she’d most like to have dinner with is God, because “He’s great.” The Holy Rollers are jokingly described as girls so bad that even God can’t control them. Bliss wears her mother’s Stryper T-shirt, which sports a reference to Isaiah 53:5. Bliss’ boyfriend, Oliver, jokes about heavy metal being OK if it’s in God’s name.
Roller derby is depicted as a sport that combines rough-and-tumble action with a high degree of sexualization and objectification. That’s obvious from the second you see the outfits the derby women wear: short skirts—with underwear often visible beneath—short shorts and plunging necklines make it impossible to miss the sensual nature of the sport. Suggestive comments come from the roller derby announcer.
Outside the rink, women wear bikinis at a party. Bliss and her boyfriend, Oliver, undress each other as they make out in a swimming pool. (We see her in a bra and panties and him shirtless.) It’s implied that they have sex. After learning that Oliver cheated on her, Bliss breaks up with him and tells her mother what happened, confessing that she gave Oliver “everything.”
A classmate insinuates that Bliss and Pash are lesbians, and a meanspirited prank involves Bliss discovering two unclothed female dolls tied together in her locker. Elsewhere, two scenes include banter between a pair of roller derby girls (in a hot tub) which implies they’re in a lesbian relationship.
Bliss’ parents repeatedly allude to their sex life, and Earl mentions that he married Brooke because he’d gotten her pregnant. When Bliss sees Earl’s van rocking back and forth, she (and the audience) assumes her parents are having sex in it. (They’re not.)
To help her vomit while intoxicated, Bliss crudely suggests that Pash envision her parents having sex. Sexually transmitted diseases, male genitalia, fondling, premature ejaculation and feminine hygiene are referenced in conversations as well.
Pash kisses someone she’s just met. Later she kisses a co-worker. A naked man holds a dog over his groin on a television screen.
Who knew roller skates could evoke such violence? Bloodied noses. Body slams. Crashes into railings. Fists and elbows thrown to the face. Bruises as big as dinner plates. Lots of falling, tripping and careening. Most of these violent moments are played as rough comedy, but one particularly jarring impact nearly knocks Bliss out.
Besides that action in the rink, a massive food fight gets initiated when Bliss attacks a taunting opponent and throws her to the floor.
One f-word. About 10 s-words and 10 or so misuses of God’s name (including two pairings with “d‑‑n”). Other foul language revolves around “a‑‑,” “p‑‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.” Despite recognizing the importance of good parenting, Maggie swears in front of her young son.
Alcohol flows freely before, during and after roller derby matches and at a couple of parties. Several derby women get drunk.
Brooke is distraught when she learns that she and Bliss are shopping in a store that sells drug paraphernalia. (It’s repeatedly referred to as a “head shop.”) Gateway drugs are joked about, and it’s suggested that one of the Hurl Scouts smokes marijuana.
Brooke secretly smokes cigarettes when stressed. Likewise, Earl has a serious fondness for beer, so much so that he drinks alone while watching football games in his van. On one occasion, he allows Bliss to partake with him.
Underage Pash gets caught by the police with alcohol at the roller derby. After being arrested, she worries about whether that blemish on her record will affect her ability to get into a good college.
Pash and Bliss lie to their parents about their whereabouts. In fact, they lie about a lot of things, as do the adults. Earl hides in his van watching football and lies to his wife about it. Oliver lies to Bliss about a being with another girl.
As Bliss becomes more comfortable in the rink, her attitude toward bullies at school changes. Soon the timid girl who was once frequently teased disappears, and Bliss knocks a bully off a stairway, causing the girl to fall dangerously. Her meek attitude at home evaporates as well, and at times she’s assertively impolite to her parents.
Vomit is mentioned several times, and we hear someone retching.
Just like Bliss Cavendar, Whip It has something of a dual personality. Which is to say, there’s quite a bit worth praising here … side by side with some stuff that’s anything but wholesome.
First-time director Drew Barrymore deftly chronicles the bittersweet process of a young woman beginning to forge her own identity. Along the way, she and her mother have to contend with the fact that they have radically different ideas of who that person should be. But when Mom has trouble accepting her daughter’s choices, Earl reminds her that Bliss has a chance to be happy on her own terms, not just Brooke’s. Mom and Dad gradually learn how to guide and accept Bliss for who she is and not who they want her to be. And as a result, Bliss grows to respect and appreciate her parents more deeply.
That part of the story is sweetly endearing, and encompasses the film’s positive messages: Find something you love and go for it. Strive for excellence. Respect yourself and your parents (well, eventually).
In a featurette on the Whip It website, Barrymore says that the movie is about “finding your inner strength … and figuring out who you are along the way. [Bliss’] journey is really about the discovery of that. That’s a huge theme of this movie: Be your own hero. For as funny as it is, to the splashy music, to the awesome raucous derby, to the quiet moments that we experience as we’re sort of taking it all in, I just wanted to put all of that in there. I hope that comes across.”
To a large extent, it does. But then there’s that “raucous” stuff Barrymore loves.
First there’s the seedy world of roller derby itself, of course, which includes equal measures of sexual innuendo and alcohol. Then there’s Bliss’ bad behavior: To pursue her dream, she has to lie—and keep lying—to virtually everybody. And when she’s swept into a dreamy romance with a guy in a rock band, Bliss doesn’t wait long before giving him “everything,” as she says. She eventually owns up to her deception and realizes that what she’s given Oliver is precious. But those realizations only partially mitigate the way the film romanticizes mistakes.
So Whip’s It’s feel-good moments get sandwiched between frequent content problems that significantly undermine the female empowerment message Barrymore says she’s striving for.
Reviews from previous PluggedIn Staff members