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There’s a difference between training up a child in the way she should go and stuffing her into a mold, so that she emerges in a shape that will reflect well on her parents.

The former is a biblical principle of instilling values in a child and pointing her to God; the latter is a recipe for disaster.

In the film “Whip It,” teenager Bliss Cavendar is pressed into her mother’s mold of beauty pageants and refined manners – a mold that suited her mother well, but isn’t a good fit for Bliss and pushes the teen toward a path that looks very much like the edge of disaster.

While as a child, Bliss conformed to her mother’s vicarious dreams, but now that Bliss is growing up, she’s seeking something else. Bliss seeks to find the path in life that is uniquely hers, a path affirmed by peers and parents, a path where she has the freedom to be herself and be loved for who she is.

Yes, this sounds a tad sappy and psychological – welcome to Hollywood’s world.

And, yes, this talk of “love me for who I am” sounds a tad like the mind of an adolescent girl – welcome to the worldview of the film’s director, the child actress who, despite now being 34, frequently displays a Kids-R-Us (“I don’t wanna grow up”) mindset in her movies, Drew Barrymore.

Fortunately for the parents of Bliss, their baby girl’s desperate search for affirmation, love and meaning only lands her in a world of excessive drinking, sex, rock ‘n’ roll and roller derby.

Oh. Wait.

The reality is, children grow into teenagers and teenagers into adults, and parents can’t fall asleep at the wheel in the process. Our babies blossom into people of their own, and in the uncertain teenage years, desperately seek affirmation of the people they’re becoming.

The question for parents is, will we know and understand our children well enough to give them the affirmation they crave and the guidance they need? Or will we hand them the keys to freedom all too quickly out of convenience to our own busy lives and leave our confused children to find affirmation in the arms of someone else?

The hearts of our sons ask, “Dad, am I man enough?” (see my review of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”). Our daughters ask, “Mom, Dad, am I lovely?” And both questions get jumbled up in the broader, “Are you proud of me?”

But throughout “Whip It,” I kept asking myself, where are the parents?

Bliss goes to school, goes to work, roller skates around the city, goes on road trips out of town and overnight … and Mom and Dad don’t even notice?

When Mom isn’t pushing Bliss to perform in pageants, she’s noticeably absent. Dad is more attached to TV than to his family. It looks too, too much like the statistics, which, I heard some years ago, found the typical dad spends an average of 47 seconds per day with his children.

So Bliss’ parents don’t know her. They don’t see the woman she’s becoming. They can’t affirm her for who she is, because they don’t know who she is.

Where then does this teenage girl find acceptance, love and affirmation? If not from Mom and Dad, then from friends first. Then from a wider circle of friends. Then from a boyfriend. And the search leads her to booze parties, sex and … well, in Bliss’ case, roller derby.

And when Mom and Dad finally do wake up and smell the coffee and show some real interest in their teenager, they don’t like what they see. But by then, it’s almost too late.

“Stop shoving your psychotic idea of ’50s womanhood down my throat!” shouts Bliss at her mother.

“Go back to your turtle shell!” she shouts at Dad.

A country singer once sang, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” But Mama, Papa, there are worse things than cowboys. There are, well, roller derby chicks.

“Whip It” is an occasionally funny film, filled with likeable characters, despite their seedy, underground roller derby scene. Most of the edges to the characters are shaved off to keep the movie’s PG-13 rating. The skating scenes are interesting and sometimes exciting.

But ultimately, “Whip It” is a film filled with teenage angst. These girls grow up fast, Mom and Dad.

There’s a warning here, but director Barrymore nonetheless opted for a gentle lesson, a happy ending with a candy coating and warm fuzzies that will please her mostly girly audience. With just a hint of “love me, be proud of me” crying out from inside, “Whip It” ends like a big ol’ teenage girl slumber party.

Before you walk away with a smile and too quickly forget the lesson, however, remember: your teenager needs you, Mom and Dad – not some girls down at the warehouse or some guy in a rock band – to know her, affirm her and love her. In the real world, girls like Bliss too often fall instead into drinking, drugs, pregnancy and bad marriages … instead of just roller derby.

Content advisory:

  • “Whip It” doesn’t put on a very modest dress – as short skirts, low-cut tops, butts, bikinis and undies abound.
  • Sex jokes and references are also frequent, as is a fair amount of suggestive flirting by the married couple. In one scene, a girl attempts to sicken her friend with a graphic description – in intentionally poor taste – of her parents having sex. An artistic, underwater “sex” scene is also depicted, though the audience sees nothing more than undressing down to skivvies and smooching.
  • The film has a hefty share of profanity, though often milder words that would be expected from the characters portrayed.
  • “Whip It” contains an unusually heavy amount of smoking, drinking and drug references, with underage drinking shown. A drunk girl treats audiences to the sound of her vomiting.
  • The film explores the theme of lying and when it is or isn’t justified, by several characters.
  • The roller derby scene is a violent sport, with fists, elbows and hip checks flying. There’s also some comical fist fighting by the rougher and more colorful characters. Some blood is depicted, as are graphic bruises, but this is played for either comedy or realism, not for sensationalist gore.
  • God is mentioned in some dialogue, but religion does not play a predominant role in the film. The Christian rock band Stryper is discussed. One team of roller derby girls is called the Holy Rollers, of whom it is said, “They’re so bad, God can’t even keep them in line.”

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