Bliss (Page), a teenager who pleases her mother (Gay Harden) by competing in beauty pageants, takes up roller derbying under the name Babe Ruthless. Thanks to her skating skills, the Hurl Scouts perennial last-placers turn around and rise up the leagu
Women’s roller derby was briefly a craze in the 1970s, and inspired a few gritty action movies with the likes of Raquel Welch (Kansas City Bomber) and Claudia Jennings (Unholy Rollers) as skating harpies. In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of the sport in Texas, and Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut — in which she takes a goofy role as skating ace Smashley Simpson — is the inevitable film spin-off, exploring the world of tough suburban chicks who get together to play what looks a lot like Rollerball in makeshift rinks, adopting witty monickers like Jabba The Slut and Bloody Holly as they skate and bodyslam their way around a tilted oval track.
Earlier roller derby movies took a fairly hypocritical tone: condemning the game for ultraviolence and objectification of women in knee-pads and fishnet tights, but showing a hell of a lot of bruised flesh and spilled blood while tut-tutting at the redneck crassness of it all. Barrymore takes a far more positive approach and depicts a sisterhood of the track — even the heroine’s arch-rival, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), is presented as an honourable, admirable character who gets a nice scene towards the end as she explains to the heroine why winning this stupid sport means so much to her — which is liberating for a girl who has been brought up as a living Barbie doll so her mother can keep competing in the beauty pageants she used to win. If there’s a downside, it’s that the well-staged, exciting, stunt-filled derby matches aren’t quite the astonishing action highlights they might be — but that’s more than compensated for by the movie’s big heart and affecting teenage drama.
Ellen Page gets the follow-up role to Juno that confirms her position as the junior leading lady with the most potential. Screenwriter Shauna Cross, adapting her own semi-autobiographical novel, doesn’t take the easy outs: Bliss’ mother may be domineering, but she’s a decent, strong person who has a real point about her little darling’s new career choice (Harden, as ever, is outstanding), and there are well-developed subplots about the heroine’s relationship with her easygoing dad (a welcome Daniel Stern), her long-time best friend (a bright Alia Shawkat), her team-mate Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), and newfound musician love interest (Landon Pigg). As a sports movie and as a mixed-up teen flick, it keeps taking unexpected turns, and unlike so many in the former genre, remembers there’s more to sport dramas than just winning. And we defy you not to cheer when Babe Ruthless shows off her blocking skills on the school’s mean girl.
Barrymore, among the most consistently admirable women in showbiz, can proudly add a Guides badge for Meritorious Directing to her many other achievements. Excellent emo chick coming-of-age drama plus broads in fetish gear battering each other on roller s