There are always complaints that there are not many good roles for women in the movies. Women generally get roles where the girl is morally challenged but has a heart of gold. Or the woman is codependent and nothing short of a doormat.
But this year has seen several high-profile female directors and their outstanding films. “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is being called one of the best movies of the year.
Now, “Whip It” comes along – the first feature directed by Drew Barrymore. It gives us many strong female characters. Foremost is the lead, Ellen Page, who portrays Bliss Cavendar.
Bliss is a high school senior forced by a dreaming mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to be in beauty pageants. Her mother wants her daughter to have some of what she had. Being a former beauty pageant winner herself, she knows the advantages it can give. But Bliss does not see this path as her own. Bliss is a rebel. This is obvious in the first scene, when Bliss shows up at a pageant with blue hair.
Bliss lives in a backwater central Texas town. She wants something different than what her mother and father (Daniel Stern) have. On a trip to Austin, Bliss sees some girls who come into a store to promote roller derby. She’s intrigued.
Lying to her parents, she and her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), go to Austin to see the show. Intrigue turns to being smitten. Bliss starts sneaking away to be part of the roller derby.
There she meets women who find empowerment in the rough-and-tumble of the skating and bumping that is roller derby. These women have left behind their former names and personas to become such characters as Maggie Mayhem (Kirsten Wiig) and Rosa Sparks (Eve).
Bliss lies about her age to participate and becomes Babe Ruthless, her alias for the circuit. And she begins to shine. And she seemingly finds love. Will her lie be found out? And what of her mother’s desire for her to win the Blue Bonnet Pageant?
“Whip It” is really a sweet movie. We see Bliss find something that she truly loves, even if many do not understand why she would want to be battered and bruised at the hands of other women. You find yourself cheering for her and wanting her to succeed.
Drew Barrymore joins some other actors, like Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner, to make the transition from acting to directing. But unlike these two, her first feature will not be garnering Oscar buzz. This is not a bad film, but it suffers from some bad characterization.
All the female characters are strong, confident people. They are wise, and even the bad girl, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), is not so bad. But the movie suffers most on account of its male characters. They all are just sorry men.
Bliss’ father is nothing short of a layabout. His greatest accomplishment is getting Bliss’ mother pregnant out of wedlock. The other males are cheaters or freaks. When the female characters talk about the men in their lives, it generally is negative.
It can be said that this lack of balance is payback. Too many times the movies offer up female characters that are less than.
And part of this is about how these women find something in life that is important to them, in spite of everything else.
That does not mean “Whip It” is a bad movie. It’s not. It is a nice movie about a young woman who finds her voice in the roller derby rink. She finds that seemingly hardened boundaries are actually elastic, where one is freed to stretch out.
Which is what we all need.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual situations, crude language and drug material.
Director: Drew Barrymore
Writer: Shauna Cross
Cast: Ellen Page: Bliss Cavendar; Marcia Gay Harden: Brooke Cavendar; Daniel Stern: Earl Cavendar; Alia Shawkat: Pash; Kristen Wiig: Maggie Mayhem; Eve: Rosa Sparks; Zoe Bell: Bloody Holly; Mark Boyd: Ronny; Juliette Lewis: Iron Maven.