Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Film Festival: 'Whip It'

Whip It is one of Those Movies. As in, I saw the trailer, decided I had to see it the second it came out, and then didn't get around to watching it until last week. Oh, well. Better a year-and-a-half late than never!

I really mean that. Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is a funny kind of of sports-film, wherein "action" sequences aren't so much about showing the game - in this case, roller derby - as they are about revealing the relationships among the characters. And the relationships feel very real, even in their "movie-ness" (successes and failures come at dramatically appropriate times, a quick chat with a friend makes things all better, and so on), because everything that the characters say and do and wear fits so seamlessly into the world of the film.

In fact, only one moment pulled me out of the story completely, and that's the the food fight scene. When that first "shot" gets fired in the form of a French fry, I think, "This isn't going to end up being a food fight, is it?" And then it looks, for just a minute, like the fight isn't going to happen. But it does happen. And it feels particularly movie-like, as it helps to cement protagonist Bliss's transformation into "Babe Ruthless." Old Bliss would smile and turn the other cheek; Babe Ruthless fights fry with pie. To me, it feels a little heavy-handed. But perhaps I only think that because the rest of Whip It takes several of those well-known movie moments and works them out the hard way. Bliss's conversation with team captain "Maggie Mayhem" about Bliss's mother is a fantastic example. Maggie, herself a mother, doesn't back down, and suggests that Bliss consider things from her mom's point-of-view.

Apart from the food fight, the only problem with Whip It is that I don't want to break it down or analyze it shot-by-shot. I just want to use it as an excuse to talk about women and movies.

* * *

Many little girls are willing if not happy to identify with the boys in a piece of fiction. They'll imagine themselves in the shoes of Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. I was never one of these girls. I didn't connect with male heroes and always looked for the girls and women in movies and television shows to see what they were up to. My favorite characters were often chosen simply on the merit of being female.

At 16, as a budding lesbian separatist feminist, I vowed to watch as many films by female directors as I could find. I discovered some of my favorite movies this way. (Coming soon to a blog Film Festival near you!) I suppose I was an auteurist before I knew what auteur theory was; I was convinced that a female director would "author" a film that told women's stories. And I was after women's stories.

But your preferred restroom door - and whether it features the Pants Man or the Skirt Woman - has little to do with the presence of women in your films! For that, you need to consult The Rule, which originally appeared in Allison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The Rule is is actually three rules:

One, the movie has to have at least two (named) women in it;
Two, they have to talk to each other, about,
Three, something besides a man.

As Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency puts it, a movie following the Bechdel Rule is "not even a sign of whether it's a feminist movie, or whether it's a good movie. Just that there's female presence in it, and they actually are engaging about things other than men."

This comic strip that originated this the Bechdel Rule - or test, as it were - is as old as my brother. And it's still relevant! Of the films we've touched on so far, only one, Away We Go passes beautifully. Surprisingly, Amélie, a film ostensibly told from a female protagonist's point-of-view, just barely passes (we see Amelie's mother, Amandine, teaching her to read). Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Iron Giant both fail.

Whip It is Bechdelicious. The variety (and tone) of female conversations was real enough to make me miss my girlfriends terribly. I wish I could watch Whip It with my 16-year-old self.

* * *
Other fun things about Whip It:
  • Before adopting the derby name "Babe Ruthless," Bliss's nickname (from her father) is "Blister." The opposite ideas suggested by "bliss" and "blister" are perfect in a film about growing up and finding your passion - or following your bliss, as it were. The heroine's name/nickname relationship suggests a kind of pleasure-and-pain idea, though not in a sadomasochistic way: more of a "every rose has its thorn" or "no pain, no gain" way. Additionally, blisters, when subjected to the same kind of rubbing every day, often go on to form calluses. You know, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
  • During Bliss's (self-)training montage - and who doesn't love a good sports-movie montage? - we see her standing in front of a full-length mirror, wearing a tank top, shorts, and brand new skates. She sways and does a brief, grooving-to-the-music-style shoulder roll before flexing with muscle-man arms. The moment lasts only a couple of seconds, but it's such a great character moment: Bliss seeing herself as seductive and (physically) strong - and being seduced by her own strength.
  • I just happen to own those shorts in the same color combination, though mine are a leetle snugger on me than Ellen Page's are on her. I always find it a little strange to see stuff I own on screen.
  • The relationship between Bliss's parents feels very real. This is somewhat unusual for a coming-of-age film, where parents are usually caricatures, serving mainly as obstacles for the protagonist to push against. Even though we don't spend much time with Bliss's mom and dad, they're clearly a well-established couple who, despite their differences and difficulties, are still in love.
Other fun things about The Bechdel Test:


Lauren said...

Thank you for reviewing this movie and posting this! Love.

Ellie said...

I truly loved Away We Go, Korinne bought me the CD for it. It was one of those movies that managed to touch every emotion so wonderfully delicately.