DVD Review: Free Style (2008)

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Unless they figure out a way to engineer a motorcycle version of “a bicycle built for two,” by its very nature of one rider per bike, motocross is not a team sport. Yet after his dad split when he was ten, which forced our protagonist to become the man of the house before he hit puberty and therefore seek male camaraderie elsewhere and also because Cale Bryant (High School Musical's Corbin Bleu) can't escape his nature as a nice guy, he's unwilling to compartmentalize his relationships on and off the track.

Case in point: at the start of Free Style, when Cale's best friend Justin takes a nasty spill on the track, he gives up the chance to go for the win by dangerously turning his bike around, thereby forfeiting the race to drive against rider traffic and just to make sure his friend is OK.

While part of me was thinking that this ended up risking everyone's life and logically I wondered just how unwise it was to grab a friend and pull him away because Good Samaritan Cale could've paralyzed him, in the film it's instant character validation to prove to us that Cale is one loyal guy.

And although Justin informs him later that, “friendship has no place on the racetrack,” and Cale's sponsor warns him that he's dangerously close to getting his bike revoked if he doesn't get into the sport with the same “me against the world” selfish style of the small Pacific Northwestern town jerk Derek, Cale continues to ride motocross his way.

Working two jobs to help support his overworked single mother (Kindegarten Cop and Carlito's Way's Penelope Ann Miller) and younger adorable sister (The Game Plan's Madison Pettis) and scarcely able to see his flaky studious girlfriend who never comes to a race, Cale is in for more twists and dangerous turns than a typical motocross track when his life begins spinning out of control.

Fairly quickly into this slightly above average tween film, Cale loses his sponsorship, his girlfriend, becomes torn between his responsibilities, love for his family as well as his desire to make it to the pro-circuit to get as far away from the town he's lived in his entire life as possible.

And eventually in this Samuel Goldwyn produced film released to DVD by 20th Century Fox, Cale realizes that even though motocross doesn't require a team effort, life especially does when you feel like you've been tossed through the air without a buddy to turn around and pull you off the track.

Featuring a charismatic breakout performance by Bleu that enables him to take the lead as opposed to playing Zac Efron's BFF sidekick in the High School Musical trilogy, the predictable yet edgy title seems like it's a natural fit for ABC Family Channel. Additionally, it sidesteps typical crude male coming-of-age rituals in favor of a different approach that hearkens to the strong but sensitive male sports-tinged dramas of yesteryear such as Breaking Away.

Of course, it doesn't rank up there with Away as few movie do and it's loaded with cliches but the best thing about the wholesome Free Style is that it also fails to adhere to one specific type like an underdog sports movie etc. but rather taps into the under-served niche of human-centric dramatic tales for teen boys.

While at times it does feel like the screenwriter and director may have initially mapped out other paths for the movie via some throwaway lines and subplots considering the Bryant children's lives as interracial individuals in a world where people demand to know whether or not you're white or black and the plot involving the absentee father feels rushed, overall, it was much better than one would assume.

Striking the right balance between heartache and inspiration in the amount of troubles that begin affecting his character, overall Bleu does an impressive job of making even some of the sudsier material feel just as riveting as the fast-paced stunt heavy racing scenes.

Holding his own against the lovely and under-utilized Penelope Ann Miller whose family films as of late are introducing her to an entirely new fan-base, Bleu's post-High School future is looking bright enough that should you opt to skip the shades, you've at least got to wear an anti-reflective glare motocross helmet to foreshadow what's around the next turn.

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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.