Many of the best teen films fail to make an impact at the box office. For every smash like Clueless, there’s an equally great but inversely successful film like Empire Records or Heathers, which both failed to make their budgets back. It’s a shame, because many of these supposedly unsuccessful teen films are actually some of the smartest and most sensitively made. Case in point: Whip It, the 2009 directorial debut by Drew Barrymore.
Starring Elliot Page, Whip It is the story of a teenage girl named Bliss Cavendar living in the fictional town of Bodeen, Texas. Her life is small and rigidly predetermined: go to school, go to work at a demeaning themed fast-food restaurant, go to the beauty pageants her former beauty queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden) enters her in. Thrills are few and far between, arriving mostly in the form of cheap rebellion such as when best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) dyes Bliss’s hair blue moments before a pageant. Bliss is not an out-and-out rebellious child – she is socially meek and, on the whole, considerate – but she dreams of a life bigger than Bodeen has to offer.
Her saving grace arrives in the form of a flyer advertising a local roller derby league picked up on a shopping trip with her family in Austin. Besotted by the idea of attending a roller derby demonstration, Pash and Bliss drive to Austin one evening under the guise of going to a football game. Bliss is enthralled by the demonstration and, on the offhanded advice of a player she speaks to after the match, decides to be her own hero and join the league, becoming the newest member of the tight-knit but spectacularly bad Hurl Scouts.
I’m fairly confident that any reader of this piece could pretty accurately map out the following plot points without ever having seen Whip It. That’s not a slight, though. The beauty of this film is in its witty, emotionally incisive script and its magnetic, naturalistic performances. There is little doubt that Whip It is one of the best-cast teen films in recent memory: aside from Page, Shawkat and Harden, the film features Kristen Wiig playing it straight as Maggie Mayhem, a derby player who takes Bliss under her wing; Juliette Lewis as a bitter bully from another derby team; Barrymore playing a clumsy, trigger-happy, and perpetually-battered Hurl Scout; and Jimmy Fallon as the derby league’s ringmaster. Ari Graynor and Tarantino favourite 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 partially based on screenwriter Shauna Cross’s experiences as a derby player in Austin.
Although traditional in its narrative beats, there are wrinkles to Whip It’s outlook that make it a smarter and more satisfying watch than traditional teen fare. The film does feature a romantic subplot, but it is almost comically overlooked, almost like it was inserted only to prove its lack of importance in comparison to Bliss’s commitment to roller derby and to her friends and family. And although teen films often privilege the experience and vigor of youth, Whip It is unique in its sensitive treatment of generational divides: even though much of the film revolves around Bliss’s insistence on her escape from Bodeen, a few key pieces of dialogue in its final moments shift the film’s emotional weight, forcing the character – and viewers – to reconsider her headstrong attitude as well as our cultural obsession with youth.
This element of Whip It – the way it travels not in a grand emotional arc, but as a series of more subtle attitudinal shifts – is one of my favourite things about it, and part of why I’ve rewatched it so many times. As a teenager, people and emotions often feel black and white; it’s the small, revelatory conversations, rather than grand epiphanic moments, that often alert us to the complexities of other people. Whip It captures this transfer better than nearly any other teen film I’ve seen.
In the 10-odd years since Whip It’s release, I’ve watched it many, many times, each time finding myself confused by its lack of commercial success or, at the least, cult status. Now that it’s streaming on Stan, there’s a chance for it to find an audience again.
In many ways, that’s the perfect dissemination for a film like this – one about being patient, going at your own speed, and taking your own time to find yourself.
• Whip It is streaming in Australia on Stan