Flat track roller derbies have really taken off in the last few years, with seemingly every major city in the U.S. getting their own league. Having experienced the sport via the Gotham Girls here in NYC, it’s easy to see what makes people love it so much- it’s got the perfect right mix of violence, speed and sex, and is really unlike anything else out there. Where else (outside of wrestling, perhaps) can you see tattooed women in skimpy outfits brutally smashing the hell out of each other? Along with all these leagues has come the desire to tell each one’s story, and many documentaries have sprung up about the formation of these leagues- Hell on Wheels, Blood on the Flat Track, Roller Warriors, etc.
Brutal Beauty is one of the stronger looks into this strange world, and this is because it chooses to focus almost entirely on the woman that make up the sport. Others stupidly focus on the drama between the players and sees them complaining about how everything is run- something that certainly exists in every sport but that doesn’t make for a compelling film. Others make it more of a sports film, choosing to ignore what makes this particular sport so unique.
The film tells the story of the Rose City Rollers, a league founded in Portland Oregan back in 2004 and featuring four teams- The Breakneck Betties, The Guns N’ Rollers, The Heartless Heathers and The High Rollers, along with their all-star team which is called The Wheels of Justice. As with every other league the players all have satirical personas that they adapt- Marollin’ Monroe, White Flight, Blood Clottia, Scratcher in the Eye. All players also have eclectic real-life careers- doctors, social workers, mothers, attorneys- which becomes even more humorous when revealed after seeing these woman playing the sport like savages. Most joined the sport as a hobby, thinking it would be a fun side activity, and watched it blossom into an obsession. It has to be for it to exist. It’s not like these amateur leagues are getting paid big bucks, and most are in fact paying money themselves for the right to play.
During the film we see funny stories from superfans, refs, mascots, and of course from these strong woman who constantly have to explain their predilection for roller derby to others. Some claim their significant others, friends and coworkers became estranged after finding out what they liked to do, while others are shown being their biggest supporters of this strange and physically punishing sport.
The film tries to simplify the rules of roller derby by having a team manager use donuts to plot it out, which seems like genius at first but is nowhere as concise as it could have been. Basically the sport is thus- two teams of five players race around a ring. One player from each team is a “jammer”, generally the smaller players who try to get through the three opposing bigger ones (“blockers”) while one “pivot” orchestrates each team. If one of the jammers get through the pack they become the lead jammer, and each successive player on the opposing team they pass nets them one point till they call it quits by tapping their hips or two minutes are up. It’s as simple as that- one person trying to skate by others, but it lends itself to so much strategy and tactics and of course, absolute brutality.
Certainly one of the big draws for spectators is the fact that it’s legal to check other players, meaning that they go tumbling quite frequently. We’re shown players with broken bones being carried off the track, and while it’s not as dangerous as you might think it’s still very much a contact sport. The bruises are legendary.
Unfortunately while the stories behind the players are the meat of this doc, it does stumble a bit with its depiction of the matches. The camera never seems to pick up any exciting moments, and the games never come across as exciting or as well attended as they should. It definitely doesn’t emulate the feel of being at a real game, with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people screaming and stomping their feet while these people zip around at breakneck speeds.
But of course, it’s not the focus. It’s all about the players here, about what makes these woman decide to put on war paint, rollerskates, risk bodily injury for our entertainment…. and how glad we are that they do.
Check http://www.brutalbeautymovie.com for a list of upcoming theatrical screenings!