“I quit soccer ’cause there wasn’t enough hitting,” says a member of the Minnesota RollerGirls in “Minnesota Mean,” a surprisingly engrossing documentary about the team’s 2017 season that will be available online as part of the annual fall edition of the New Jersey Film Festival, all day Sept. 15.
Why do I use the adverb “surprisingly”? Because, I have to admit, I started watching this movie with low expectations. I’ve never had any interest in roller derby. Or known anyone who did. Or imagined why anyone would. (After watching it, I still know little about the game itself, though I could tell you the difference between a jammer and a blocker, so that’s something, I guess.)
But the movie, straightforwardly but smartly directed by Dawn Mikkelson, is not about the game. It’s about the team: The RollerGirls members who, despite the modest crowds and the paltry recognition that being an elite roller derby athlete generates, still have a fierce devotion to the game, and to each other. They’ve all found some kind of fulfillment through roller derby, and that gives them a family-like bond.
If there was any inter-team conflict during that season, it’s not in the movie. Though they have their ups and downs in the games themselves, things are always harmonious behind the scenes; everyone is supportive and respectful of everyone else. For away games, they gather in hotel rooms and share pizzas. It looks like they’re having the time of their life.
They all seem mild-mannered in real life, but fierce once they put on the skates. It’s like they become someone else — a notion supported by the fact that they compete under stage names. There is Halluci’Jen, and Scarmen Hellectra, and Shiver Me Kimbers (it was either that or Agent Kraken, she explains). A Native American, devoted to Native American causes, uses the name Smoka Hontas; a former English student becomes — I laughed out loud at the genius and audacity of it — Hurtrude Stein.
Somewhat improbably, the RollerGirls have their own unofficial cheerleaders, too. Mostly male, they paint their faces and bare chests in RollerGirls blue, drink beer, stand together and chant. (Mikkelson includes some interview footage with one of them as a fun bonus at the end of the film.)
Players, coaches, spouses, fans … it’s one big, happy misfit family, with the embedded Mikkelson capturing it all. And plenty of unforeseen drama develops as the season progresses. Star player Brickyard breaks her ankle mid-season, and has to stay on the sidelines. Shiver Me Kimbers gets pregnant and has to drop out, reluctantly. Smoka Hontas is getting older, and suspects this season will be her last.
Switch Please joins the team mid-season, having previously played with a team that took the sport less seriously. She embraces the opportunity but is also filled with doubt, not sure she can play up to the RollerGirls’ level.
By the end of “Minnesota Mean,” I was … well, maybe not cheering along, or painting my face, but certainly more emotionally invested on whether the team was going to win the season’s last game than I ever imagined I would be.
For more on the film, visit minnesotameanfilm.com.
For more on the festival, visit njfilmfest.com.
Here is the film’s trailer:
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