Sometimes, the mainstream is impossible to figure out. Every week, movies fill the local Cineplex, and some which seem like outright motion picture puke (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) rack up huge box office returns. On the other hand, excellent, entertaining offerings like Drew Barrymore's great grrrrl-power roller derby effort Whip It! get ignored and/or rejected outright. It just doesn't seem right. Sure, the previously mentioned titles have huge marketing campaigns, established franchise foundations, and the repeated financial cache of being sequels, but why should product take the place of pleasure. If a movie is fun, witty, comical, entertaining, emotional, and special as this, shouldn't it be celebrated over some crass hackneyed cash grab? In this case of this sunny Ellen Page vehicle, the answer is obviously "No". Good thing DVD and Blu-ray are around to resurrect Whip It! 's flagging fortunes. In this case, the movie and its makers definitely deserve a second chance.
Teen Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is one of those one horse town dreamers that can't seem to catch a break. Her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) is desperate for her to continue in the family tradition of local beauty pageantry, and aside from such human dog and pony shows, there's not much else to do in her just outside of Austin, Texas locale. There's also not much help coming from the rest of her relatives. Dad (Daniel Stern) is so disconnected that he can't even watch football in his own house - and that's a Lone Star state shame! And her kiss-up little sister? Sheesh...
Of course, Bliss has a cynical best friend named Pash (Alia Shawkat) who also wants out, but is too busy acting like a critical Greek Chorus to find a personal path to freedom. One day, Bliss comes across a flyer for a local all female roller derby club. Convinced it might be fun, she decides to try out. Soon, she's the star player on the ragtag collection of nurses, waitresses, and other middle income mammas. This makes her teammates happy (they're finally winning). This also makes her competition suspicious (she is underage, after all). Neither is more of a concern than what will happen if her parents find out.
If you looked in the dictionary under the phrase "crowd pleaser", a picture of the poster for Whip It! wouldn't be out of place. It's one of those rare combinations of formula and freshness, novelty sprinkled with enough solid studio presence to send audiences home happy and critics contemplating the reasons behind its success - except, Drew Barrymore's directorial debut was not a hit. It sat around, lifeless and limp, before slowly slinking off into the realm of regional dollar theaters and underappreciated gems. And it's a shame, really. Had it taken off, had it started a true cult of personality and appreciation for the sport being symbolized - in this case, the nu-wave gyno-wonderment of that surreal '70s export, roller derby - we'd be celebrating everyone involved. Instead of questioning the taste of mainstream viewers, we'd be wondering when the local revamp of the whole Kansas City Bomber ideal would begin in our hometown. Frankly, it's unfathomable. There is nothing wrong here. The direction is sharp, the performances pitch perfect and loaded with depth and dimensional heft. The script is witty and insightful, and the whole enterprise trades on familiar concepts while updating them beyond your Granny's UHF undercard.
In fact, it can be said that Barrymore shows more sass and verve as a filmmaker than a dozen drippy male journeymen. While she's no outright artist, she has a keen ear for music (and the accompanying montage), a wonderful eye for quirk, and a real sense of cinematic salesmanship. With her sensational cast of supporting sportswomen - including such fine specimens as Zoe Bell, Kristen Wiig, Eve, and Juliette Lewis - she creates a real sense of camaraderie and team unity. It's something that goes beyond gender and the requisite politics. Indeed, Whip It! is not so much a feminist manifesto as a suggestion regarding where the movement can reinvent itself to find a more modern, resonate purpose. All throughout the storyline, Barrymore emphasizes this kind of collection power structure present vs. the old school silliness of traditional roles and rules. Sure, Marcia Gay Harden seems strident and almost surreal as the stage mother desperate to see Bliss become a prissy tantrums and tiaras skank. But her denouement, her moments of openness and clarification shine as brightly as when her daughter finds dignity and purpose in pile-driving into other skaters. In fact, Whip It! is not solely about bouncy babe bravura. It's about the joy human beings can have when they are utterly and ultimately true to themselves.
Perhaps the mostly female cast confused many of the more testosterone-fueled film patrons. Sexuality with strength can be scary, boys. Even then, Barrymore tosses in amazing work from Andrew Wilson as the team's Zen master coach Razor and Jimmy Fallon as the local announcer/sports entrepreneur/sleazeball, 'Hot Tub' Johnny Rocket, so the guys should feel somewhat safe. Granted, the romance between Bliss and some random himbo/hottie doesn't necessarily work, and we can see the preordained "big game/big conflict" coming a mile away. Still, Barrymore is not necessarily working in stock. Such amazing ancillary facets as the stunning Manson Sisters, Lewis' villainous (and aging) antagonist) and the plausible perk of seeing tattooed chicks taking chunks out of each other in a brutal, butt kicking assail lift Whip It! out of the stereotypical and into the realm of a forgotten gem. Maybe sometime in the future, when the motion picture history of 2009 is written, Drew Barrymore's work in this poppy pixie stick of a film will be full appreciated. Scholars will dissect her shot selection while sociologists uncover the secret meaning behind the then international cultural phenomenon known as professional full contact roller derby. Until then, grab your DVD or Blu-ray player and settle in for one of last year's most enjoyable entertainments. Whip It! is simply wonderful.
As a first time director, Barrymore has a wonderful eye and the DVD of Whip It! reflects that. The 2.40:1 image is bright, shiny, colorful, action-packed, and loaded with little touches that indicate where this filmmaker feels the true emotional heart of the movie lies. She has a flashy way with the roller derby sequences and the transfer captures her shimmering style effortlessly. The picture can appear a little flat and we see a bit of grain during night exteriors, but overall, the digital recreation here is top notch.
Sound is as important to Barrymore as images, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix provided does a bang-up job of presenting the alterna-rock and indie pop gemstones she unearths with crystal clarity. The dialogue is always easy to understand and the back speakers get a real workout once the roller derby action revs up. There are also Spanish and French 2.0 Surround tracks available, but they really can't compare to the multichannel English version. It really does celebrate Barrymore's perky prom queen sense of cinema.
Sadly, all this Screener disc had to offer in the way of added content was a selection of deleted/alternate scenes and some trailers. Neither was that impressive. Here's hoping the final product (or perhaps, the Blu-ray disc) allows for more participation from Barrymore and company. Update: the standard DVD does not. It contains the same items mentioned above. Phooey.
Like any underground sport, roller derby has struggled mightily over the decades to move into the mainstream and be accepted as a true expression of able athletic prowess. Like professional wrestling, however, many have relegated it to the position of engaging exhibition, phony as baloney and indecipherable when it comes to rules and competitive drama. And yet ts ability to quell our almost insatiable desire for bloodlust and violence should not be overlooked. Into this already sticky situation comes Drew Barrymore and her masterful movie Whip It! , and things go from confused to crystal clear. While the derby itself might not be more comprehensible, the entertainment value provided by this film is easy to understand. Earning a well-merited Highly Recommended rating, this critic will definitely be checking out the Blu-ray to see if it ups the ante, bonus feature wise. If not, that's a disgrace. Something as accomplished and downright fun as this film deserves to be treated with respect. Relegate the barebones backwash to something like Whiteout or I Love You, Beth Cooper. Whip It! is a very good movie, and should be treated as such, no matter the format.
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