Character Relationships Masterclass – Whip It.

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a movie with a killer soundtrack. The right music goes a long way toward enticing me to watch again. It wasn’t until my subsequent viewings of Whip It that I realised exactly how interesting the character dynamics and comparisons are, and it wasn’t until my partner mentioned in passing that it might be a good blog topic did everything properly click. So I watched it again. If you haven’t seen it already I suggest doing so before you read any further. Alternatively, you can read on and get pissed at me for spoilers because unfortunately I’ll have to talk about the ending. You have been warned.

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From the outside, Whip It is a fairly typical coming of age story. Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a misfit indi-rock teen girl who lives in a small Texan town. When she finally finds the place where she belongs she has to learn how to balance her new hobby without alienating friends and family. Throw in a romantic subplot with a cute boy and a yelling match with her parents, end on a feel-good fuzzy finish and you have the bare bones of a story we’ve seen a thousand times. But you know what other stories we’ve seen over and over? “Man reluctantly saves the world and gets the girl who’s always mad at him.” “Orphaned child learns they’re special and also the saviour of their people.” “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again.” The trick is to take these common storylines, use them as the foundation of your story and build from there. Take some of the predictable plot elements and turn them on their head, give your audience something new to focus on and, above all, give your characters proper development. That’s exactly what the Whip It author and screenwriter Shauna Cross did. Bliss’ character development comes, primarily, through her connection with other characters.

Whip It focuses on five key relationships – Bliss and her parents, Bliss and her best friend, Bliss and her boyfriend, and Bliss and the ladies on her roller derby team. Wait, did I not mention roller derby yet? Well, it features as this films’ “something new and exciting”.

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The film opens by establishing the relationship between Bliss and her mother, Brooke. We begin at a local beauty pageant where Brooke is eagerly awaiting her daughter’s appearance on stage. Bliss walks on in a white dress with her hair dyed blue.

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When her mother is yelling at her afterward, Bliss timidly says she dyed it as a dare, and allows herself to be dragged to the local hair salon to have it fixed. This dynamic of Bliss going to lengths to rebel against her mother while being too afraid to actually state what she wants – in this case to not be involved in pageants any more – becomes a pattern.

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Later on, Brooke takes Bliss and her younger sister shopping in Austin. They go to what looks like a trendy, independent vintage clothes store, where Bliss convinces her mother to buy her a pair of combat boots. To her credit, Brooke doesn’t seem overly reluctant (as she is trying to bond connect with her child by doing something Bliss would enjoy) until she spies some “pretty vases” in the display counter. When the sales clerk laughs at her, she realises they’re spun-glass bongs and refuses to buy the shoes out of embarrassment and not wanting to be a customer at a “head shop.” Bliss attempts to timidly talk her mother around before giving up and paying for the shoes herself, another way of acting out rather than saying what she really wants. When you look at it like that, it’s not a surprise that she’d act out by secretly going to a roller derby exhibition match in Austin with her best friend, Pash.

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Going to watch this first bout is pretty simple – Bliss and Pash just tell their parents they’re going to an away game for their high school football team. Bliss’ Father, Earl, loves football and offers to go with them – he seems really excited by the opportunity to bond with his daughter, but winds up being shut down. Later in the film, Earl and Bliss have a sweet scene while watching football together where he tells her that, when it comes to her mother, she needs to pick her battles. He says this while they’re sitting in his van watching TV, because Brooke doesn’t approve of football and he needs to watch it in secret. These are two people who just want to keep the peace, but who also want to do the things that make them happy.

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After the exhibition game, the derby girls are outside the venue spruiking fundraising merchandise. Bliss talks to Maggie Mayhem (Kirsten Wigg), who casually encourages her to try out for the team. That Maggie assumes she’s over twenty-one (the legal age to participate without her parents’ permission) and talks to her like an equal seems to be Bliss’ tipping point; the outing goes from medium-scale rebellion to an opportunity to hang out with a bunch of women she admires while secretly rebelling against her mother. Pash telling her she doesn’t have the balls to try out only seals the deal.

So, Bliss digs out her old skates with Barbie on them and practices, then catches the regional Bingo bus to Austin for the tryouts. Long story short she makes it on to one of the teams, the Hurl Scouts, but manages to piss off the captain of a rival team in the process. To be fair, Iron Maven seems easy to tick-off anyway, Bliss didn’t do anything intentionally. Her acceptance into the Hurl Scouts makes Bliss finally feel like she belongs – here are several women who she looks up to as role models, but who unlike her mother have plenty in common with her. They’re tough, stand up for what they believe in and don’t take themselves too seriously. Bliss adopts the derby name “Babe Ruthless.” It’s not until later that she realises where she learned this ruthlessness.

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After one of Bliss’ games is shut down by the fire marshal, Pash gets arrested for being underage and holding an open container of beer. She was arrested while waiting for Bliss to talk to her new boyfriend, Oliver, and Bliss forgot about her completely while she and Oliver went off for a romantic evening. It’s implied that Bliss and Oliver slept together here, and the next morning she gives him her favourite shirt – a vintage T-shirt shirt for the Christian heavy metal band Stryper. He gives her his jacket. Oliver then leaves to go on tour with his band.

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Pash’s arrest, meanwhile unravels the lie. Her parents call Bliss’ at three in the morning, and they are waiting for Bliss when she gets home. Her father is mad about the deception, but her mother is more concerned that Bliss is falling into the wrong crowd, saying “what do you think that the world thinks of those girls with all their tattoos? Do you think they have an easy time finding a job, or getting a loan application, or going to a decent college?” Bliss’ reasonable response of “I think it depends on the girl” is drowned out by Brooke continuing with “Or finding a husband?!” Finally, Bliss is able to say what she really thinks of pageants and of her mother’s idea of 1950’s womanhood. The argument ends with her being banned from derby. Her father even confiscates her skates, at which point Bliss yells at him to “go back to (his) turtle shell so (he doesn’t) have to confront anything.”

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Bliss then goes to talk to Pash, who is so mad that she lashes out. She blames Bliss for her leaving her alone to get arrested, clearly violating the sisters before misters rule. With nowhere else to turn, Bliss goes to live with Maggie Mayhem for a while. It’s here that we learn that Maggie is a mum herself. Meanwhile, Oliver isn’t answering Bliss’ calls while he’s on tour and Pash still refuses to talk to her. She’s also forced to reveal to the team that she’s only seventeen.

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The next day she has a heart to heart with Maggie, who says, “I know what it’s like to want to do your own thing, I do, but maybe there’s a way you can do it without making your parents feel like crap?”…”I’ve just been thinking, and I think maybe you’re being a little selfish with your mom.” When Bliss disagrees, Maggie says that she’s lucky to have a mum who cares at all, “and just because she’s wrong about derby doesn’t mean she’s wrong about every single thing…just because you found a new family doesn’t mean you throw the old one away.” This advice, coming from someone who Bliss thinks is cool but who also happens to be a mother herself, makes Bliss start to think about the people who she looks up to. Maybe her mum and Maggie aren’t that different after all?

That same day, Bliss logs on to the website for Oliver’s band. There, on the front page, is a photo of him with another girl who is wearing Bliss’ Stryper shirt. Devastated, she goes home.

This leads to a poignant scene with her mum. Bliss is sitting in front of the fridge, tears in her eyes. Brooke knows right away what the problem is – “whoever he is, he doesn’t deserve you.”

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Bliss reveals to Brooke that she “gave him everything,” and after a moment Brooke stands up and leaves the room, apparently angry, but returns a moment later smoking a cigarette. “It’s a lot to process.”

“She was wearing my Stryper T-shirt. How could he do that?” Bliss asks.

Your T-shirt?”

“It’s the only cool thing you own.”

“That you know about,” Brook laughs.

This opens up their conversation to some of the things that really matter. Bliss realises that there was far more to her mum than she realised; that she got her ruthless streak from the strong woman in front of her who only wanted the best for her children, who had already lived a life full of mistakes and love and laughter, and who maybe had some good advice to give when they laid down their arms. Maggie is a mother and Holly used to go to metal concerts; Bliss’ separate worlds are suddenly merging.

This scene also a display of how important a child’s relationship with a parent is – no matter how old we get, if you have a solid and trusting relationship with a parent you will always turn to them when things get tough. I still call on my mum for help (hi, mum!), and she turned to her own mother for advice until the day she died. We fought like cat and dog from time to time, but if you’re lucky enough to be on good terms with your family they can be an invaluable source of emotional support.

The scene ends with Brooke explaining that she doesn’t want Bliss to do the next pageant unless she wants to, not because it would make Brooke happy. Bliss lies and says she wants to do it. She also apologises to her dad, who accepts it without a moment’s hesitation. Bliss then apologises to Pash and tells her about everything that happpened with Oliver. Together, they burn Oliver’s jacket.

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Unfortunately, she still can’t go back to derby. The final bout is on the same day as the pageant, and she has to tell a disappointed Maggie that she can’t do it. Teammate Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore, who also directed) offers to kick her mum’s ass, but it’s no good. But then Earl looks up the derby league’s website and sees his daughter’s photo on all of the advertising, and a video of Bliss performing one of the team’s favourite moves – the whip – and he is blown away. He goes to the team himself and convinces them to talk to Bliss in person. Meanwhile he talks to Brooke, saying he thinks Bliss should go back to derby.

When Bliss chooses to leave the pageant her mum isn’t happy about it, but she goes to the championship to watch anyway. Brooke doesn’t like what she sees – Bliss gets hit hard. After the bout Bliss explains that she wants to continue derby and move to Austin, and her mum says that it’ll be hard to accept. The movie ends with Brooke reading the speech that Bliss wrote for the pageant, saying that the person she admires most is her mother.

“The person I admire most is my mother because she’s a fighter who never gives up on what she believes in and she never gives up on me. Obviously I would be delighted to win the Blue Bonnet pageant but knowing my mother is proud of me means more than any crown.”

Will Brooke finally accept Bliss’ choice to stick with derby? Probably, but she probably won’t like it. But what matters most to her is that her daughter is happy. A predictable ending? Yes. But it’s balanced out by the resolution of the two other main storylines. Bliss dumps her boyfriend when next she sees him, mentioning that “my mom wants her Stryper shirt back!” It’s very possible that his story is true – that the girl in the photo was a random chick who put the shirt on and nothing else happened – but Bliss reminds him that he never called, even though he admitted to getting her messages. Pro tip dudes: if your girlfriend calls you and says she’s going through some crap, CALL HER BACK.

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Also… the Hurl Scouts don’t win the championship. They come close, but they still don’t win (hey, I warned you at the top about spoilers!). This isn’t a Mighty Ducks plucky-underdogs-take-the-win sort of flick, it’s about more than that.

Bliss’ friendship with her team mates gives her camaraderie and older role models for who she wants to become – they’re her antidote to growing up in a town where she didn’t fit. Her friendship with Pash is born from being in the same situation, going through similar struggles at the same age. Her relationship with Oliver is that of a reasonably typical first love – they tend to get screwed up somehow. Bliss and her dad share a sense of humour and a similar outlook, but he sees more of her mother in her than she realises. Brooke and Bliss are too similar to be friends, and while she disapproves of her daughter’s choices there is still so much love between them; both think they know best but don’t want to hurt the other.

Without the exploration of these relationships this film wouldn’t work. It would just be another movie about sport, albeit with super awesome ladies on skates. Character development is crucial to making a story interesting, and if you can make your characters grow and learn from each other at the same time then you may actually have a decent idea on your hands.

Whip It is on Netflix. If you’ve gotten this far still without having seen it, I still think you should, even if it’s just to hear Drew Barrymore scream “FOOD FIGHT!” in the middle. Oh, and for the killer soundtrack.

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