Blu-ray Review: Whip It (2009)

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Breaking Away is more than just one of the films that inspired Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It-- so much in fact that it helped her casting decision of Daniel Stern.

For, in coming-of-age movies, it's the recurring quest for our hero(ine) to break away, to become their own true hero and to work a new tribe into the herd with whom they can fly.

Breaking away is also a goal of the roller derby jammer who gains a point for every blocker she passes as she soars past them, jumping over opponents and leaving bloody noses in her wake if she must.

Likewise, when you blend all of these ideas together, you realize that you have the ultimate metaphor for Drew Barrymore's Whip It since you're melding the literal and the figurative together in a beautiful yet bold concoction of wheels, metaphorical balls, and the journey from childhood to adulthood via every teen's Independence Day rite of passage.

And for a girl named Bliss who previously attempted to break away from the truck stop Texas town of Bodeen's beauty pageants with a bottle of blue hair dye, the tale becomes far richer when the town's Bingo bus is the one that allows her to break away from the pack. And adding to the originality, she breaks away on skates that no longer have Barbies on them when Bliss transforms on the track into Babe Ruthless in Austin's Roller Derby League.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by author Shauna Cross who skated in LA under the same pseudonym given to Bliss' second mother figure Maggie Mayhem (a dynamite Kristin Wiig), Whip It marks an auspicious directorial debut for Drew Barrymore.

Barrymore also manages to break away in the film by breaking the teen movie mold of key lighting, Top 40 soundtracks, and unbelievably designed costumes and sets into an edgier feel-good movie where romance is a subplot rather than a main plot and it never matters if the underdog team wins or loses.

Yes, the formula of the big match and the cute boy comes into play but it's never the way you expect and Barrymore dispenses with the sunny feeling and easy fixes of the genre to instead cull from the movies of her own generation, which is apparent right from the start.

Ideally cast with a welcome return by Juliette Lewis who-- as always-- appears to convince you she's capable of playing anyone while seemingly connecting on a deeper level with this role, the movie at last also lets Juno and Smart People actress Ellen Page give up the wisecracking routine.

This time around she plays a sweet, smart, shy and sheltered unlikely Bodeen beauty queen whose mother Marcia Gay Harden knows no other way than to let her daughter shine or reach greater opportunities than the ones in her community than the pageant circuit she shares with her younger sister (played by Harden's real life daughter).

While Barrymore is dealing with quite an ambitiously large ensemble cast, with the exception of a few interchangeable derby girls, she nicely ensures that every character gets their moment, whether it's Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as our heroine's best friend, Daniel Stern as the vetoed, laid-back dad in a house filled with strong women, Owen and Luke's talented brother Andrew Wilson as the coach of Bliss a.k.a. Babe Ruthless' team The Hurl Scouts who creates an ingenious playbook or Jimmy Fallon as the wannabe Vegas style emcee.

And although the actress turned director also has a fun supporting role as well, throughout, Barrymore is most evident on the other side of the camera in some of the difficult scenes between the mother and daughter that echo her own life and in her lead character's need to find something she loves on her own.

Similarly, she goes to great lengths to ensure that we realize that what she loves isn't actually a cute boy or a new hobby but a sport that makes her realize who she truly is as a human being.

While Oscar nominee Page makes a natural Bliss, I have to say that on the second viewing,I was far more riveted by the turns of Kristin Wiig who leaves a much more lasting impression in this one than she did in the excellent Adventureland or Ghost Town in a great follow-up to Extract as well as the always compelling Marcia Gay Harden whose performance I saw one day apart from another traditional but quite different turn in Sony's Blu-ray of Mona Lisa Smile.

Despite the fact that the great “Zoe the Cat” a.k.a. Kill Bill stuntwoman and Grindhouse: Death Proof actress Zoe Bell is wasted in the film as just another skater unfortunately-- although most likely so that she wouldn't upstage the rest-- this gritty “girl power” film, purposely shot to feel timeless as though it would've fit in cinema last decade or the one before, will no doubt grow more popular on disc.

While, given the dark look of the movie, I'm sure it would've probably done well on DVD transfer-wise, Fox has routinely delivered the most standout Blu-rays in terms of image clarity and sound balance and this one is no exception.

Yet since the studio no doubt realizes DVD may be more popular, in addition to the same alternate opening and deleted scenes, the Blu-ray provides a digital portable download copy as well as “Writer's Draft,” an extra bonus feature with the screenwriter as part of the HD incentive.

Unfortunately it's lacking a commentary track with our brand new director, to help the Blu-ray find its own tribe in home entertainment since Whip suffered the misfortune of a poor marketing campaign, along with being stuck between the very ugly film by Page's Juno alma-mater screenwriter Diablo Cody via Fox's Jennifer's Body and Juno director Jason Reitman's Oscar nominated film Up in the Air.

Had Air been released first, I truly believe that Page and Barrymore would've been able to gain extra momentum to break away from the pack to Whip around the blocker of Jennifer's Body. Yet, since we can't change the release dates now, my only wish is to hope you ignore the marketing campaign, pick it up and become your own movie hero in the process.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.