Films are predictable, even if they’re good. It’s not because people are unimaginative or lazy, it’s just that these forms of narratives have come to shape how we understand a series of events. For example, when imagining a musician’s life onscreen it makes sense to show their rise to fame from humble beginnings, subsequent problems (often with substance abuse) before reaching some sort of higher point in their artistic careers by the end. And as I say, it doesn’t make bad films – one of my favourite films, Walk The Line, adheres to this formula pretty closely.
But then you see a film like Frank, which came out last year and blows apart the tired formulas which typically construct the path to musical genius. Domnhall Gleeson’s parasitic Jon thinks he’s talentless because he hasn’t had a harrowing tale like the ones in the movies, and fantasises about the mysterious place that enigmatic musician Frank (Michael Fassbender) must come from – Bluff, Idaho. But when Jon finally finds it, he discovers it’s a small provincial town just like the one he grew up in. And Frank’s eccentricities and mental illness are completely detached from his musical ability – in fact, if anything they’ve inhibited his talents. Jon learns that the stories he’s learned to shape his understanding of life with are too simplistic – that people are too complicated for an arc.
The film I’m mainly here to talk about has such undefinable people too. Whip It has plenty working in its favour: it’s directed by Drew Barrymore, who is awesome; it stars Ellen Page, Juliette Lewis and Kristen Wiig, who are even better; and it even contains a rare sighting of the third mythical Wilson brother (Andrew, sibling to Owen and Luke and putting in a great performance). But on paper, it sounds clichéd as hell. Bliss Cavendar (Page) is a social misfit forced by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to take part in beauty pageants – but she finds a release participating in violent “roller derby” tournaments with a team of lovable misfits (cringe) who are languishing in the bottom of the league. Underdog antics ensue, and Bliss’ family (at first disapproving) eventually come to accept her transgressive ways. She also meets a nice indie boy who she can go out with. Hooray.
So what makes it different? Well, Whip It dares to imagine these archetypes complexly; the film’s characters may inhabit a typical narrative, but they behave like real people and are drawn with nuance. When Bliss and her mother disagree, neither of them is right. And that’s huge – what kind of film doesn’t have an easy answer?
It’s not even that they have to meet somewhere in the middle, reach some kind of compromise, it’s that there is no right answer – the situation they’re in is too complex for a quick fix. And so while Bliss’ mother tries to accept her daughter’s unusual ways, she still hates them, and rails against them. She doubles back on her apparent emotional growth, changes her mind, is inconstant. And, in one memorable instant after her daughter has her heart broken, she’s not entirely supportive. Bliss confesses that she gave up “everything” to her now ex-boyfriend, on the floor in tears; but her mother doesn’t want to hear it. She’s disappointed, almost repulsed by the admission.
That exchange is what makes Whip It so momentous for me; the idea that a screen mother would react like that is unthinkable. But a real mother? Very thinkable. It doesn’t make her a bad person, it makes her a real, complex one. And amid the wealth of laughs, great action sequences and soundtrack that make Whip It fun, it’s that small, bleak moment of honesty that stays with me. I appreciate that it probably only works because it’s reacting against how I would expect film characters to act in these situations, but it’s a breath of fresh air regardless.
I’m not holding up films like Frank or Whip It as the greatest examples of cinema to be found. Pushing against audience expectation is not something that would suit every film, and to be honest I’d prefer it stayed out of many (The Avengers with an existential Captain America might be a downer). But there’s something about the small amounts of personal truth they display that seems important. Films are predictable, even if they’re good – but life is unpredictable. And sometimes films can be too.
Follow Huw on Twitter @huwiemcchewieby