This is a movie, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Shauna Cross who wrote the screenplay, made by women for women about women and that only a woman could like. But I doubt if many women will fall in that category. The woman who accompanied me to the screening (at a real theater with real people in attendance) hated it. I was more sanguine; I thought the first hour an incredible bore. Then, for me, it picked up a little, which is why I didn’t give it the 2 out 10 Swan rating… that was my friend’s valuation.
Bliss (Ellen Page) is a 17-year-old unhappily surviving in Bodeen, Texas, a small town outside of Austin, working as a waitress in a diner with her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat), who wants to get out of Bodeen by being accepted at an Ivy League school. Bliss’ mother, Brooke Cavendar (Marcia Gay Harden), is a former beauty contest participant who is obsessed with having Bliss follow in her footsteps.
Bliss goes to a roller derby match, is enthralled, lies about her age, tries out for a team and is accepted. So she lies to her mother, who is unaware of what Bliss is doing at night. Listen, this story is so boring that it was an ordeal for me to just write this short paragraph. After an hour, I was ready to bolt. It picked up a little in the last 50 minutes but not enough to recommend.
Page is a wonderful actress. Why she signed up for this Drew Barrymore-created affair is beyond me. Worse, Barrymore, who directed, produced and gave herself a small role in the film, has Page in a really silly sexually-oriented swimming scene with her boyfriend, a putative guitar player/singer, Oliver (singer/song-writer Landon Pigg) and, in a later scene, even has her take off her shirt and appears in only a bra. As good an actress as Page is, her sexuality has nothing to do with her body, which isn’t exactly erotic. Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly had stimulating sexuality but their shapeless bodies were never exposed in any way. When Page appears scantily clad, it is less than titillating. I’ve been your fan since Hard Candy (2005), Ellen. Please don’t do this again.
There are some good performances. Page does her best with the weak story. She’s ably supported by Shawkat, who creates a believable character in the best friend; Juliette Lewis as ‘Iron Maven,’ Bliss’ nemesis on the opposing team; and Kristen Wiig as ‘Maggie Mayhem,’ Bliss’s friend and confidante on her team. Also standing out is Jimmy Fallon as the emcee. Fallon is probably too young to remember 1950’s announcer Dick Lane, who was the Vin Scully of roller derby (and wrestling, creating the term “Whoa, Nellie!” when something spectacular happened) but he does a good job of creating Dick Lane-type excitement.
Even though there are some professional skaters in the cast, I didn’t think the action scenes were nearly as natural or believable as those created by Mark Ellis for 2004’s Miracle and many others. I used to watch roller derby when I was growing up and what is shown here doesn’t come close to recreating what it was really like then (and probably now; I haven’t seen it in decades). Exacerbating the lack of verisimilitude is that Page is so slight it strained credulity to picture her actually mixing it up with much bigger and more powerful women.
In the last 50 minutes, Barrymore shows some promise as a director but, like most directors who apparently have final cut (it’s her production company, after all), she needs a good editor with the authority and power to demand cuts. The first hour digs too big a hole for this to overcome.