Ellen Page stars as quiet 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar, whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden) wants to make her the queen of small-town Texas beauty pageants. Bliss meekly goes along with the idea, her voice too small to tell her mom she hates the contests. But one chance visit to nearby big city Austin and everything changes. Bliss admires some intimidating derby girls, and after sneaking off to a match, decides to try out. What follows is a fast-paced, highly entertaining girl-power anthem.
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The movie is perfectly cast; Page plays a shy teen easily, never giving up her sweetness even after she adopts the moniker "Babe Ruthless" and gets repeatedly knocked into the rink sidelines. The team who welcomes her, the Hurl Scouts, is a motley crew: Eve and Zoe Bell don't become much more than background players, Barrymore is an ebullient if minor supporter ("Smashley Simpson"), but team captain Kristen Wiig is one of the hearts of the movie. With a part bigger than the trailer implies, Wiig (I never get tired of the derby names: "Maggie Mayhem") emerges as a mother figure when Bliss's relationship with her own mom is strained. It's nice to see her playing straight for once, and besides Page, Wiig is really the only multi-faceted derby girl.
That's not to say that the derby girls aren't anything special. Beautiful, tough, and impossibly cool, maybe you wouldn't want to meet them in a dark alley, but you'd definitely want to be invited to their party. Juliette Lewis looks every part the queen bee — aggressive and sexy, she'll push you in a locker before you know what hit you. And naturally, there's a love interest, musician Landon Pigg — but he's kind of an afterthought, which I liked. By not giving in to the cliche that a girl gets everything she wants when she finds her passion, it strengthens the movie's pervasive girl power idea.
The movie isn't just about derby; it's a coming-of-age tale too, and Bliss didn't come from a shaky foundation. Alia Shawkat (yay, Maeby!) plays the hilarious and supportive BFF who doesn't exist just to cheer Bliss on from the sidelines. She's got her own thing, and is too confident to be left behind when Bliss gets wrapped up in her new life — a refreshing departure from the typical best friend character. And Harden isn't merely a strict parent caricature; she may want something completely different for her daughter, but her caring nature shines through.
It's not all success on skates, though. Sometimes the portrayal of the derby world gets to be an overzealous glorification. Sure, it's an amazing outlet for a lot of people and one of the few contact sports that really belongs to women, but the movie pushes the sexualization of the players a little too far. It's already sexy that the women play such a powerful sport, so it's not really necessary to do close-ups of the actresses' bare flesh to show the bruises.
There are a few things you could criticize about Barrymore's direction; for instance, Shauna Cross's screenplay is really quite funny, but some of the actors' lines fall flat. Also, the roller derby scenes have such potential to be exciting, and they could have been even more epic. Then again, this is Barrymore's first outing as a director, and it's still what you would expect from her: a fun-loving, freewheeling confection of a movie with a killer soundtrack.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight