by Robert Beames, published on August 16, 2010 - 4:08 pm|
With her debut feature, Whip It, Drew Barrymore asserts herself as a capable filmmaker, after years in front of the camera and many spent behind the scenes as a producer (on projects as diverse as Donnie Darko, Music and Lyrics and Charlies Angels: Full Throttle). It is hardly surprising that someone practically raised in the movies (a star since appearing in ET as a seven-year-old back in 1982) should take so easily to making them. But what is surprising is just how much fun Whip It actually is.
Boasting the quirky, colourful aesthetics that have almost become the house-style at Fox Searchlight, set to a soundtrack by acclaimed music supervisor Randall Poster and starring Ellen Page (of Juno fame), Whip It was seemingly well-placed to become an firm indie favourite and a box-office hit. However it failed to make much of a splash at the box-office, only just recouping its modest budget by the end of its run. It deserved better and Barrymore will be hoping to gather a cult following with its home video release the film coming out on Blu-ray disc and DVD today in the UK.
Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, who becomes Babe Ruthless when she sneaks off to Austin, Texas and takes up the alternative, amateur, all-girl sport of roller derby. Dragged to beauty pageants by her well-meaning but pushy mother (played with aplomb by Marcia Gay Harden), Bliss sees roller derby as a better match for her personality and soon befriends a group of social misfits of varying ages and backgrounds, who compliment her quirky, off-beat personality much better than fellow students at her high school. Whip It combines the well-worn clichés of the sports movie genre (the rival team; the tough but fair coach; shots of the scoreboard; the big final game; the bad rival team; etc) with the trappings of a teenage coming-of-age drama to thoroughly enjoyable effect.
Probably in large part down to Barrymores own turbulent childhood, Whip It brilliantly avoids being twee or prissy in its depiction of young girls. The girls here are tough, capable and confident; throwing elbows as they engage in what is a pretty competitive contact sport. Kristen Wiig as a character actress, now a mainstay of American comedies typifies the movie: her character being a down-to-Earth, single mother and fun-loving, roller derby team captain. She also delivers the films key message when she says to Bliss: be your own hero. A cheesy line, perhaps, but the moral lesson to be gained from Whip It is a much more empowering one for young women than those usually offered on celluloid. Crucially, Blisss decision to give up pageants isnt simply cosmetic, as it might be in so many other films (probably symbolised by dark eye makeup and wrist bands), here its actually backed-up by an attitude, which is about standing up for yourself and learning to love who you are.
There is a palpable sense of joy throughout this movie, which resolves one key confrontation with a knowing and tongue in cheek cry of food fight (cinemas first since Hook?) issued by the director herself. This fun feeling is aided in no small part by a terrific cast of supporting players: Jimmy Fallon is an affable presence as the derby commentator, Juliette Lewis was born to play Blisss sporting rival Iron Maven and Daniel Stern is a suitably warm and likable presence as Blisss understanding father. The real comic highlight is Andrew Wilson, who is brilliant and typically understated as the girls coach Razor, who feels straight out of a Wes Anderson movie and is a consistently hilarious. It is nice to see him in a fairly sizable role and here he makes his biggest impression since he turned up as Future Man alongside his brothers (Owen and Luke) in 1996s Bottle Rocket. It is also nice to see Drew Barrymore in front of the camera in a small role as Smashley Simpson, the most violent member of Ellen Pages team of roller derby heroes.
Where the film suffers is in its middle section in which the pacing takes a dip and the laughs dry up during the inevitable down section where everything contrives to go wrong all at once for Pages plucky hero. Some of these threads are necessary for the story of the film, for example Bliss has to convince her mother that she should be able to take part in roller derby rather than beauty pageants. However, the thread concerning the temporary break-up of her friendship with Alia Shawkats character (Pash) is a major drag, because in the rest of the movie the friendship between Bliss and Pash is entertaining, endearing and rings true (such as when the convincingly adlib to Dolly Partons Jolene at work). The other low point is the male love interest Oliver, played by Landon Pigg (apparently a singer-songwriter new to acting). Whilst the individual tender moments written for the romantic scenes are fairly sweet, Pigg is just too wet-behind-the-ears and the film becomes a bit less enjoyable whenever he is onscreen.
On Blu-ray Whip It benefits from a really sharp and colourful 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer and a very clear DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track perhaps undermining the movies punky, slightly grimy sensibility in some way, but still: the film is nicely presented. Perhaps the surround mix could be a bit louder and the derby matches themselves would benefit from a slightly more raucous atmosphere. But all things considered, this is a very polished Blu-ray offering.
As far as extras go, there are about 15 minutes of deleted scenes. Some of these are just extensions of existing scenes and most of them make you think I can see why that wasnt included, but they are worth watching if youre a fan of the movie, and there are some funny and charming moments to be glimpsed here.
There is also around 35 minutes of interviews, including contributions across the cast, from Barrymore and Page to the rapper Eve (who has a fairly small part) and the films writer, Shauna Cross. These are fairly standard and lacking in much real insight, but they are watchable enough. Pleasingly both these extras are in high-definition a rarity as Blu-ray collectors will know. It is perhaps disappointing that there isnt a commentary or a proper documentary on the disc, as it would have been illuminating to see how Barrymore set about making this first film as a director. But overall, Whip It is a solid Blu-ray offering.
Whip It is a confident and thoroughly enjoyable directorial debut for Drew Barrymore. It manages to have an authentic sisters doing it for themselves feel, without being tacky or patronising. Whilst it didnt perform amazingly well in the North American Box Office, maybe Whip It claim an audience on Blu-ray and DVD and stake its claim for cult classic status. If youre up for a good, fun movie, then you could do much worse then to buy or rent a copy of this charming film.
Whip It is available to buy on Blu Ray and DVD from Monday 16th August.