I went to see Whip It last night and very much identified with or rooted for the main character. I went with my husband and he did not. The reasons why are less important - but suffice it to say we don't always see eye to eye on movies. I still remember sobbing during Synecdoche New York only to look over and see him literally snoring in his seat.
So what are the components of rooting interest?
1. We want what they want. That is to say they have a good plan that makes sense and we can see how it would be a good thing. In Whip It she wants to be a roller derby star. And why not? She's got a talent for it. Plus she LOVES IT. She's making friends, she's having fun, all of it seems like a good thing for her to be doing with her time.
2. We understand and identify with what the character is going through. In Whip It the main character is the oddball outcast in her small town. She doesn't fit in at school. She doesn't fit in at home with her mom and for sure she doesn't fit in to the pageant world her mom is trying to make her a part of. If you've never been an oddball then maybe you don't know what it feels like - and this may keep you from connecting with the story. Also, you may have been an oddball and have hated that part of your life - so again, this would not be the story for you. The question of identifying with your character plays into how marketable a film is. This is why executives routinely favor male point of view stories. They figure gals and gays can identify with anyone but men in that 18 - 24 demographic they desperately want are incapable of empathy for anyone but their own group. I couldn't disagree more, but that's an argument for another day.
3. It will help fix the damage in her life. Now this is a subtle an difficult area to get right. In Whip It the main character is on the edge of giving up. She is about to become the girl she is not. She could go along to get along. This is an act of defiance in a way that will help her establish her own unique identity. Over the weekend I read Legally Blonde to see how they handled this "damage" question. Elle Woods is kind of frivolous. Kind of. Okay, a lot. It's what we love about her but she's in danger of overlooking her real talents. Her mom can't understand why she'd go to law school, chiding "You were Miss Hawaiian Tropic! You're going to throw all that away on law school?" Even when she shows up at Harvard she's still frivolous. She doesn't take it seriously. She writes notes with a fuzzy pen in a pink journal. Eventually though, she hunkers down and does become serious. So much so that she wins the big case. The journey helps her fix the damage within herself. In both movies we can see how every scene "educates" the main character, teaching them the lessons they need to be a better, more complete person in life. In the process of educating the character you are also educating the audience. When you do so with cliche moments, refrigerator magnets as I like to say, you insult us. That is why these moments of education have to be insightful, fresh and true.
A great way to identify the components of rooting interest is to read a script and make note of them in the margin. I can't stress how important it is to read a script rather than watch a movie. Movies happen too quickly. You're caught up in other things when you watch them. Only by being slow and deliberate can you deconstruct these moments. You'll also find that reading a produced script is a delight compared to work that needs work. It lets you see what the script experience should be.