Film Review: Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City RollersDocumentary about women's roller-derby in Portland, Ore., showcases a talented new director but doesn't disclose its executive producer's ties to the organization, making objectivity suspect.
As slickly shot and edited as your average ESPN documentary, on a much smaller budget, this look at contemporary women's roller derby as seen through the eyes of the hipster chicks, young professionals and other mostly young women in Portland, Ore.'s Rose City Rollers league accomplishes two things: It makes a convincing case for roller derby being an actual sport and not a scripted, pro-wrestling-style athletic exhibition; and it shows that even girls with punk-rock tattoos and nose studs can utter sports-speak clichés right up there with Nuke LaLoosh of Bull Durham.
Producer-director Chip Mabry—a former publicist and journalist who moved to Portland in 2006 and was executive producer of the skateboarding documentary Rip City—artfully intercuts everyday details and local atmosphere as he seamlessly tells the story of alpha females who are neither disaffected nor seeking affirmation about anything. While the word "empowerment" does slip in within four minutes—we won a bet that it would be within five—it's used in a context of just getting it out the way. The women of this four-team citywide league, part of the national Women's Flat Track Derby Association, are immersed in this sport to be competitive, to bond as teammates, to perform in front of surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowds and to bask in the sheer physical joy of ramming and jamming in a high-speed oval. Like guys, basically, and we mean that in a good way.
Granted, it'd be easier to accept their seriousness of purpose if they didn't all take on silly/ironic personas like Marollin' Monroe, Madame Bumpsalot, Blood Clottia and Scratcher in the Eye; with the exception of Brittney Mathews a.k.a. White Flight, a daycare teacher and the only African-American skater featured in the film, not one of them gives her real name. That includes Rocket Mean, one of the founders of the nonprofit Rose City Rollers organization who, under her real name Kim Stegeman, is an executive producer of the movie—meaning that if there's a dark side or anything uncomplimentary to RCR, Mabry may not have had the editorial independence to go there. (Except for two skaters, their real names have appeared in stories in the Portland press.)
Shot mostly in 2009, Brutal Beauty—shown city to city in roadshow fashion—examines the Break Neck Betties, Guns-N-Rollers, Heartless Heathers and High Rollers as they compete in a local auditorium where the women and their various friends, boyfriends and supporters lay down and pick up the flooring for the track themselves each weekend. The skaters aren't paid, but rather pay dues to belong to RCR. Girls try to make their way up from each team's B roster to its A roster, and then to compete regularly in the bouts.
The rules are complicated but straightforward, as the High Rollers' male coach, Robin Ludwig a.k.a. Rob Lobster, describes them. Each team has a pivot, a jammer and three blockers, and a team gets points when jammers reach the front of the pack and then come back around and pass opposing skaters. Scores can reach into the low 100s.
A few skaters stand out, primarily the stolid Erin Case a.k.a. Cadillac, whose rapturously devoted boyfriend, a certified athletic trainer, volunteers his services to the league; Shanako Devoll a.k.a. Blood Clottia, a serious and highly professional social worker; Madame Bumpsalot, the most conventionally pretty of a group that eschews conventional "size zero" standards of physical beauty; and the gregarious, delightfully foulmouthed Marollin' Monroe, a pink-and-bleached-white-haired life-of-the-party.
Brutal Beauty—which is about the fifth nonfiction feature on the subject over the last five or six years—loses momentum when we leave Portland to follow the all-star traveling team, Wheels of Justice, as it competes for the regionals in San Francisco and Denver. Here the movie becomes a formula sports documentary, and you've heard it all before: "It really boiled down to the mental game." "They're a great team, but I think we beat ourselves more than they beat us." “The game starts at zero to zero." Yet overall, the talented Mabry delivers an interesting look at a sport with great potential, and at women who can be testosterone-tough while remaining fully feminine.