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Thoughts on Whip It and An Education [Filmmakers Bleed]
April 29th, 2010 by Dan

It’s a tough world out there. The first person you meet in the beginning of The Legend of Zelda says, “It’s dangerous to go alone,” and he’s 100% right. I know this as well as anyone.

Childhood, and school in general, wasn’t that long ago for me. For a kid whose family was decidedly not in the military, we sure seemed to move around and swap schools plenty. It’s not a contest (protip: it is a contest), but I’d say I beat out most non-delinquent, non-military kids with seven school transfers in the thirteen years that I attended school.

The solid core I had at home with my brothers could only take me so far. Once the school bell rings, you’re on your own. When you switch schools roughly once every two years, you have to learn to adapt to new environments, find your niche, and fit into it as fast as you can. It’s tough to be a kid and constantly find the right crowd to fit in with. There were times where I had no crowd and I was a reject. Lucky me that I never found myself giving up who I was or falling in with “the wrong crowd”.

Whip It isn’t literally about this. Bliss Cavendar, played expertly by Ellen Paige, does have a best friend (marking the first time I’ve seen Alia Shawkat in a major role outside of Arrested Development) who supports her youthful yearnings for “something more”, but, for a movie about friendship and sisterhood, there is a distinct lack of sap, probably because roller derby is an intensely violent sport being played by women out to hurt each other.

Drew Barrymore is no stranger to girl power movies. She was a heavy influence on the direction that the abysmal Charlie’s Angels movies took and her roles tend to feature stronger female characters, so there’s nothing too unexpected about her directorial debut, except, maybe, that she doesn’t really star in it. Her cast focuses on Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, and the ridiculously hilarious Kristen Wiig and the community that Bliss becomes a part of, much to the chagrin of her mother. The beauty of this movie comes from the empowering message it doles out. A lesser movie would have Bliss’ mother be a super-bitch who refused to understand that her daughter didn’t want to do the pageants. Sure, Bliss’ mother is trying to achieve the dreams she lost to an unplanned pregnancy through her, but she’s also looking to see her daughter succeed and have something good in her life in the only context she really knows. She comes around when she realizes that Bliss really does love roller derby and she lets go with almost zero fuss.

The most telling scene in the movie comes before the final, climactic round. Bliss’ rival on the opposing team, Iron Maven, learned earlier that she was underage and could be considered ineligible. She reveals that she knows this to Bliss, who then comes clean to everyone and gets proper authorization from her parents to compete. When she confronts Maven later on about her jealous ploy to remove her from contention, Maven surprises her by saying that she had no intentions of outing her; she just wanted to get in Bliss’ head. Whether or not this is a cop-out response, the intention is crystal clear. These women are competitive and hate losing to each other, but they are not catty, jealous, or manipulative, as you might expect.

Kristen Wiig also gets standout mention from me for her role as a responsible mother figure/mentor to Bliss. In fact, everyone in this movie is so supportive and grounded in making the right decisions that it borders on unbelievable. The only people who make dumb choices are Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat’s irresponsible teen characters. Their lack of experience and teen self-righteousness realistically gets them in trouble.

An interesting side effect to all the feminism is that every male character in the movie plays to some kind of stereotype. Bliss’ father is a yes-man to the wife who spends all his time watching football, going so far as to sneak away to sit in an abandoned parking lot in his van to watch football, far away from his wife’s judgmental eyes. Oliver, the love interest in the movie, is a pretty-boy member of a band who predictably cheats on Bliss the first chance he gets and is rejected by her when he returns to apologize. Birdman, the manager of the restaurant Bliss works at, is constantly manipulated by his female employees and, though he does “get the girl” at the end, he’s not exactly a strong male lead. Jimmy Fallon’s character is the announcer at the roller derby and a pathetic seeming man who makes lame jokes and repeatedly fails at coming on to the roller derby girls. The strongest male role comes in the coach of Bliss’ roller derby team, Razor, played to perfection by Andrew Wilson as a tactician, almost hippie lover of the sport who is so anemic at managing the team that he can’t even get them to execute any of the plays he concocts for most of the movie.

I’m not saying a movie needs strong male roles to counter the female parts at all. I think it’s kind of refreshing to see a movie that marginalizes men instead. It’s rare that you see a movie made by women, for women that’s not a sappy love story, a Lifetime movie, or a feminazi-type production, so this was refreshing.

The main beauty of Whip It is precisely that it’s a movie about being true to one’s self, one’s friends, and one’s dreams, without being all that sappy. It’s a coming-of-age tale that hides in violence and comedy, but couldn’t sing its message clearer. Sure, the message can get a little heavy-handed, I mean, Bliss’ mother the beauty queen trying to force Bliss into pageants that she doesn’t want to do, blah blah, the evils of the exploitation of women by the mainstream, yes, it’s a clear contrast being made to the world of roller derby. Then again, this movie is smarter than that. Roller derby isn’t exactly a feminist’s dream. The sport does trade on sexual exploitation, so the movie is more railing against not being able to choose for oneself.

I wasn’t planning on watching back-to-back feminist movies when I set up my netflix queue, but that’s kind of the way it happened when An Education made its way to my mailbox a few days later. Despite similar themes, we’re talking a complete tonal shift, as An Education takes place in 1960s England and revolves around a similarly-aged boarding school student named Jenny (Carey Mulligan).

As you might expect, Jenny’s troubles are more of the pre-feminist revolution type. Jenny’s got this “Why bother?” attitude toward the Oxford education that her father is pushing her toward, mostly because all it seems to mean is that Jenny will have a few more years of a fulfilling, educational life before she ends up back in the dead-end world of 1960s England where her prospects are teacher, secretary, or housewife. Jenny wants what many 16-year-olds want, a chance to see the world, become cultured, experience more than what her middle class life has destined for her and so she naturally falls for an much older man, David (played by Peter Sarsgaard (and his terrible faux-British accent)), who can provide those things

An Education is a little more blatant with its comparisons. Jenny is constantly sharing screen time with Helen, the beautiful girlfriend of David’s business associate Danny, who is far more interested in fashion, glamor, and not using her brain. The opposite path is the one that her teacher is on, but she’s ridiculed by Jenny for being somewhat homey and her appearance is far from beautiful (in the way that Hollywood goes and makes beautiful women look not beautiful).

The real crux of the movie comes from the futility of the decision that it seems like Jenny is making. As citizens of the 21st century, we know that Jenny would certainly find more opportunities for success in the England of the 70s and 80s, but the end of the movie does leave you feeling that the education that Jenny is receiving, both from David and from Oxford, are ultimately futile attempts at delaying the inevitable.

In any case, both movies are fine examples of pro-feminist film that actually promote healthy lifestyles and relationships for women. How rare is it in Hollywood to see that?


2 Responses  
  • Eric Mesa writes:
    April 29th, 201018:00at

    Pretty good review. You turned movies I’d never see into movies I might see.

    • Dan writes:
      April 30th, 20107:54at

      Good to hear. That’s always the ultimate goal.


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