I read the book first, watched the movie second. I knew what was going to happen, but that didn't take away from any of the moments onscreen because Barrymore did an eloquent job fleshing out the characters the way I'd imagined them to be. Except for the fact that I'd imagined Ellen Page's character, Bliss Cavendar, to be a little bit more outspoken than she was. I suppose the movie's intention was to highlight the way she comes out of her shell and get more personality when she starts to learn how to play roller derby. I guess I am okay with that.
The scene where Bliss sees the roller girls enter her life for the first time really struck me. The point is made so clearly: Bliss knows that her life just changed in that instant. She is very aware that, in this tiny shred of time from one moment to the next, that there suddenly is no going back, and whatever suffering she may endure as a result of this run-in with something greater than herself that she is to ultimately join, then so be it. Such a feeling is hard to pack into one movie scene, but this manages to convey it very nicely. I almost wanted to shed a tear at seeing Bliss recognize so much of herself in those girls who seem so much stronger and more confident than her.
The movie carries along at an easy pace, much like the way the book seems to fly by as if I'm reading the journal of a close friend. I can relate to Bliss in some ways - suburbanite, trapped - but in others, such as her issues with her aggressively pageant-enforcing mother, I had to step back and let this movie be a movie. I still envied the way that, because this was a movie, however, the Porky Barrel or whatever that fast food joint that Bliss works at looked so glamorous. Bliss gets to lounge lazily with her friends against the counter and do absolutely nothing while no one cares. God knows that, since Bliss is headed for flat-track freedom in that sunlit future of hers, she will eventually be getting out of there. It's almost a given.
After reading the book but prior to watching this movie, I read the book Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby. The authors of which worked on the set of this movie to help make sure scenes held at least vaguely to real-life standards. They mentioned two roller derby gals who were apparently deaf in the movie, whose actresses performed a million takes to perfect their apparent sign language. I only see these two gals once, and barely even that, when they both beat and tear apart a vending machine at the beginning of Bliss's tryout. I forgot why. I could barely see them motioning with their hands at all. I guess a lot of movies scrap a bunch of scenes that all took their own time and effort. It must be hard to do, if a director gets attached. And another thing: I don't understand why Drew Barrymore had her own character be this airhead who keeps falling down, getting her nose bashed, giving up on her coach, and otherwise being grossly immature. Said coach even goes so far as to say something along the lines of, "If I said this play was called BONG WATER would you finally listen to me?!" at her. Which was hilarious, but I still don't get it. Maybe it was all just an expression of Drew Barrymore's weird sense of humor? Still.
The intimate scenes between Bliss and Oliver were idyllic. That's the only word I can use. Offbeat, alternative, vintage would also work too: cinematic times a hundred, and all too good to last. Based on the book, I know what comes. Oliver is really just a big skank who indulges in the groupies that infest his road vehicle, and gives one of them Bliss's hallowed Stryper T-shirt as if it were a party favor, no less. What's a girl to do!?
Thankfully, after this dip in the movie (where everything can and does go wrong for Bliss) things pick back up. I was a little surprised that the Hurl Scouts didn't win the final match... but hey, things really do look up because now Bliss really has found her calling, or at least something that augments her personality. And I know it's kind of weird to say this, but Bliss's relationship with Oliver, despite being tragically typical, was still magical in its own way while it lasted. Being the first among sure to be many connections with guys who sparkle in a very human way, it was Bliss's choice to put her heart out there and experience all that she did. Her relationship with her mother, however, feels a bit too classic. It's sweet that she magically bonds with Bliss at her return from god knows where (from her point of view), but I don't know if she'd be so readily willing to stifle questions about where Bliss had been and with WHOM before total parental indignantion reigns supreme. Deep down, it is clear that Bliss's mom is more human than small town beauty queen fanatic, and so her seemingly instinctive act of reaching out makes perfect cinematic sense.
I still liked this film because it has heart: a colorful cast of women who seem, by all means, like real roller derby players. Several of the characters, I hear, were and are real team members who learned how to act for this movie specifically. That is really cool. I have a lot of respect for Barrymore - despite the weird character that she plays - for having the audacity to craft a movie like this.