Blu-ray Review: WHIP IT!

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 Charlie€™s 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 €œindie€ 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 €œBabe 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 €œbad rival team€; etc) with the trappings of a teenage coming-of-age drama to thoroughly enjoyable effect. Probably in large part down to Barrymore€™s 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 film€™s key message when she says to Bliss: €œbe 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, Bliss€™s decision to give up pageants isn€™t simply cosmetic, as it might be in so many other films (probably symbolised by dark eye makeup and wrist bands), here it€™s 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 €œfood fight€ (cinema€™s 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 Bliss€™s sporting rival €œIron Maven€ and Daniel Stern is a suitably warm and likable presence as Bliss€™s understanding father. The real comic highlight is Andrew Wilson, who is brilliant and typically understated as the girl€™s coach €œRazor€, 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 €œFuture Man€ alongside his brothers (Owen and Luke) in 1996€™s Bottle Rocket. It is also nice to see Drew Barrymore in front of the camera in a small role as €œSmashley Simpson€, the most violent member of Ellen Page€™s 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 €œdown€ section where everything contrives to go wrong all at once for Page€™s 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 Shawkat€™s 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 Parton€™s €˜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 movie€™s 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 €œI can see why that wasn€™t included€, but they are worth watching if you€™re 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 film€™s 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 isn€™t 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 €œsisters doing it for themselves€ feel, without being tacky or patronising. Whilst it didn€™t 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 €œcult classic€ status. If you€™re 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. All Blu-ray screenshots come from the excellent DVD Beaver resource.

A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.