Bookshop owner-operators, scantily clad entertainers at a sports bar, Texas roller derby girls–what else could these characters have in common but Feminist February?
When she secretly joins a roller derby team, teenaged Bliss finds a second family but puts her other relationships–and skeletal system–at risk.
In addition to her rather unfortunate name, teenager Bliss has inherited the burden of her mother’s expectations: specifically, her expectation that Bliss will take the beauty pageant scene by storm as her mother did.
After an incident with blue hair dye gone awry, it becomes clear that Bliss’s mother takes pageants much more seriously than her daughter. In fact, even Bliss’s younger sister seems more excited about competing despite her young age.
Though stuck in the small Texas town of Boden, it’s not all bad. Bliss has her fellow waitress and bff Pash to keep her company and get into all of the best kinds of trouble with. As long as she has her bestie, Bliss seems resigned to her fate as a perpetual beauty contestant.
That is, until one day while shopping with her mother, Bliss sees a group of giggling women swan in on roller skates. From flyers they pass around, Bliss learns these are derby girls and decides she will find a way to get to the derby in Austin.
Under the guise of attending a high school football game, Bliss and Pash drive to Austin to check out the roller derby. Bliss is immediately interested in both the sport and a generically cute guy. After derby girl Maggie Mayhem invites Bliss to try out on Tuesday, she schemes to cover up her absence with her parents, find a route to Austin via public transport, and conveniently forget the rule that players must be at least 21.
Trying out for the Hurl Scouts is no cake walk–the women are fast, intense, and fully ready to body check competitors in this contact sport. As a speedy skater, Bliss is a perfect contender for the role of jammer, the only one on each team who can score points. The jammers will attempt to lap the other team members, scoring a point for each lap. Fellow team members will help their jammer along while trying to sabotage the other team’s jammer–frequently with physical contact that can leave a vicious bruise.
Despite Bliss’s speed, she timidly avoids altercations with her competitors–kind of a problem in a contact sport. However, she does join the team and earn her derby girl name, Babe Ruthless.
It’s only after joining the team that Bliss learns the Hurl Scouts are notorious in the league as constant losers. As the song goes, girls just wanna have fun, and the team really leans into its reputation. They certainly aren’t improving their odds by ignoring their long-suffering coach and refusing to carry out the plays from his painstakingly created play book.
While bonding with the team after hours, Bliss runs into the cute guy again at a party. She learns that he, like every other 20-something dude since the beginning of time, is in a shitty band that thinks it’s destined for greatness. Oliver, which I think is actually a nice name and better than this dude deserves, and his band do seem to have some success as they do have an album.
With Bliss as jammer and the coach’s plays guiding their games, the Hurl Scouts begin to enjoy success too, winning against some of the other teams for the first time ever. Everything seems to be falling into place for Bliss, who also gets serious with Oliver in an underwater sex scene that looks logistically very difficult to accomplish.
However, things inevitably begin to unravel after the police break up a derby that violates fire safety regulations. Caught with beer in hand, Pash is arrested. Bliss, who escapes with Oliver, doesn’t realize the trouble her bff is in. To make matters worse, Bliss’s parents learn the truth about her roller derby nights as a result, Bliss’s rival Iron Maven discovers that her fiercest competitor is just 17, and Oliver will shortly be off on tour with the band.
Having alienated everyone she cares about and put the Hurl Scouts’ chance at victory in jeopardy, will Bliss be able to make things right while following her dreams?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
The cast here is absolutely stellar: Ellen Page (even though she sometimes falls into the trap of playing the same character over and over again), Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Drew Barrymore…I could go on. Additionally, this is Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. Not sure if Drew decided against sitting in the director’s chair again because I can’t think of another reason we live in a world with no more director credits for her.
As well as Bliss’s coming of age story, I love the focus on the ladies here and their relationships. Bliss and Pash’s relationship is everything to me, and the rapport among the Hurl Scouts is so uplifting. The film approaches Bliss’s difficult relationship with her mother realistically but doesn’t paint Brooke as a one-dimensional monster, which is refreshing. As for the men, if you’re not here to support Bliss, you’re not welcome at all. Men are definitely on the sidelines in this film.
However, there are a few issues that stood out to me with the film too. The entire storyline with Oliver feels unnecessary. I know the sexual awakening scene is basically a requirement of any coming-of-age film now, but I gave zero fucks about it. At least this film doesn’t idealize teenage romance with what is essentially a mediocre white dude who plays guitar slightly above average.
I also felt like I was missing some further explanation of Brooke’s insistence on Bliss’s beauty pageant participation and opposition to roller derby. Is the pageant supposed to pay for Bliss to attend college? Did pageants mean so much to Brooke that she thinks it’s important for Bliss to carry on the tradition? I would’ve liked a bit more depth as the (spoiler) reversal of her parents’ strong anti-derby stance feels a little too convenient.
The roller derby name “Jabba the Slut” deserves its own corner of appreciation, though.