'Whip It' moves at the same roller-skating speed as the very sport it highlights and with the same sort of spectacle and oddball pageantry that's all in good fun. Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with this hipster dramedy about self-discovery via the persuasion of the kitschy, girl-power-fueled universe of roller derby. For her first-run as filmmaker, Barrymore plays it safe, with an all too familiar coming-of-age plot that never strays from its intended goal - a cute story about finding one's passion in life. While the film may not challenge viewers or show much originality within the narrative, 'Whip It' is still a well-executed, animated, and charming flick energized by a contact sport involving hot babes with tattoos and roller skates. Sit back, drink a pint, and just enjoy the rough-and-tumble festivities.
Based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, who also wrote the screenplay, the film shows Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) living in the small town of Bodeen, Texas, where not much happens. Her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden) pushes her to participate in beauty pageants despite the fact that she feels awkward in them, and her father (Daniel Stern) prefers not to argue the matter. Hoping to one day discover where she belongs, the teenage misfit encounters a trio of roller-skating women circulating flyers for a roller derby match. With Ivy League hopeful and best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) in tow, the two girls discover a world in which being brash and bumptious is not only acceptable but even encouraged. Finally feeling like she's found her place in life, Bliss does what it takes to join a team and stay there, namely: lying and living a double life.
From here, the rest of the film follows the standard sport-themed formula, where Bliss comes across a hard-hitting adversary in Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis) and the Hurl Scouts, Bliss's team, actually win enough games for a shot at the championship. But Barrymore does a great job making it all appear fresh, full of high spirits and amusing to the very end. Though the narrative at times feels as if moving a tad too swiftly, the first-time director maintains focus without ever losing the story's edge or enthusiasm. The sport is such a great escape from life's monotony, a place where spectators are immersed in the exuberant cheers that celebrate the ladies' beauty, independence, toughness and sportsmanship. And 'Whip It' nicely captures this spirit and the excitement of the roller bouts, giving viewers unfamiliar with the game a glimpse of what it's like to be there.
Although her performance in 'Juno' was impressive for such a young actress, Ellen Page has yet to really shine or show a great deal of range in my opinion. She seems to portray different variations of the same character - the combination of a quirky, intelligent, sharp-witted tomboy constantly waiting for the next opportunity to tell The Man how it really is. As a young lady hoping to escape her mundane reality, however, the young thespian's attributes are perfectly suited for this universe of attractively eccentric women. The lessons imparted from the derby environment and the rest of the cast, which include Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Zöe Bell, and Eve, are all part of the film's charm. And Page crafts an emotional arc without feeling forced or overly sentimental. Without the Cody-speak handbook at her side, she reveals herself to be a fine actress indeed.
Taking its title from one the sport's signature moves, 'Whip It' is a heartwarming tale that cutely romanticizes the roller derby subculture. But in a good way. Barrymore and Page make a conventional plotline work by allowing the rules of the game to motivate and inspire the rules of Bliss's life. It's a touching first effort by Barrymore, and the film has a good chance of being remembered as the best movie about this spectator sport. Those hungering for more can always visit such classics as 'Kansas City Bombers (1972)' with Rachel Welch, 'Unholy Rollers (1972)', or the skating documentary 'Derby (1971)'. If you're in the mood for something a bit on the stranger side, then there's 'Rollerball (1975)' with James Caan or the disco fairytale 'Xanadu (1980)' with Olivia Newton John. In either case, 'Whip It' can stand tall amongst those other roller skating flicks.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox Home Entertainment releases this Blu-ray edition of 'Whip It' in a two-disc set. The first is a BD50 Blu-ray with the film and supplements, and the disc is Region A locked. The second is a digital copy for portable devices. Both are housed in the standard blue keepcase and not in the eco-case normally expected of the studio. Our readers are also reporting that there are few green keepcases floating around for purchase, but review copies only came in blue. As soon as the disc is inserted into the player, trailers for 'Amelia,' '(500) Days of Summer,' and an AFI promo automatically start but can be skipped. Afterward, viewers are greeted by a glam-rock-inspired main menu. Also worth noting, my BD rental copy from Netflix arrived minus the special features.
Drew Barrymore's 'Whip It' debuts on Blu-ray with a warm and attractive 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer (2.35:1), which really complements the film's humorous aspects.
Though it comes with a few noticeable soft spots, the picture quality displays strong definition in foreground objects, and there is clear visibility of all background information. Shadow details are wonderful and revealing, which is perfect for the many low-lit interiors and derby matches. Grain structure is very thin and even throughout, giving the encode an appreciably cinematic quality. Black levels are deep and accurately rendered, providing good depth of field, while contrast is comfortably bright and crisp. Colors are nicely saturated and full-bodied, with good variations in the other hues and healthy, lifelike skin complexions. The image as a whole is consistent and stable, looking very much as it did during its theatrical run. This hi-def presentation is as lovely and eye-catching as the derby ladies themselves.
Matching the video presentation in almost every way is this very enjoyable DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that really highlights the film's lively roller derby events.
Surround activity isn't as overwhelming or immersive as it probably could be, considering the loud, rambunctious applause of derby patrons, but the unruly cheers of the crowd display some very light bleeds in the rears for subtle atmosphere, and the echoes of "Hot Tub" Johnny's colorful comments fill the room satisfyingly. The lossless mix is generally front-heavy by design, and the presentation is quite remarkable and engaging. Dynamic range is sharp and cleanly delivered, with wonderful differentiation between the highs and lows. Imaging and channel separation is well-detailed and convincing, providing the soundstage with an impressive, room-penetrating presence. Vocals are crystal-clear and lucid while low-frequency effects come with good palpable force, adding depth to each song and roller skating bout. Ultimately, 'Whip It' sounds just as lively and charismatic on Blu-ray as the roller derby events themselves.
While all other areas of the Blu-ray disc are quite good, bonus features are horribly disappointing. The release doesn't even come with an audio commentary, a making-of featurette, or at the very least, a short documentary on the history and revival of the roller derby. Fortunately, there are also some HD exclusives detailed below.
In spite of its conventional storyline and predictable conclusion, 'Whip It' is a fun, enthusiastic and charming first effort from director Drew Barrymore. Ellen Page does a great job in the role of a misfit underachiever who discovers something to be passionate about. The Blu-ray comes with very good video and audio, but a meager collection of special features. Overall, the disc is still worth recommending for the film and the high-def technical specs. Fans will not be disappointed, and everyone else should at least give this little flick a chance.