I like everything about this plot idea. Beautiful, horrible former high school queen, Mavis (Charlize Theron) is now in her late 30s, living in Minneapolis and ghost writing for a young adult series of novels about high school drama. When she hears her old high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have had a baby she decides that he’s The One Who Got Away. She goes back to her small, provincial Minnesota home town to help him escape from what she’s sure is a life in hell. All the while she’s trying to finish writing the last novel for the increasingly unpopular series, which the publishers are about to shelve. Written and directed by the same pair, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, who produced the snappy Juno (2007) and starring the excellent Theron, the only question is: why doesn’t it quite work?

The problem isn’t Theron, that’s for sure. I’ve only seen her be funny once before (in Arrested Development) and she’s good at it. It’s a tricky part, because she’s such a resolute anti-heroine. She’s just incredibly pretty — and let me say that watching her for 90 minutes almost makes you want to drool in spite of yourself — yet her character is a dark, alcoholic, depressive bitch on wheels. As mean as Mavis is, Theron has to make you feel for her, even against all your better judgment. Within the first 20 minutes I realized something about that horrible girl in my high school: being that pretty can make you paranoid such that you imagine envy and death rays coming out of every other woman’s eyes. (Which made her all the meaner.)

In short: this film is made for all of us who weren’t Mavises in high school, and it’s made for one purpose: so we can delight in her misery. Problem: that’s not really a very good plot.

Here’s my theory: the problem with this story is that ultimately we learn more about the screenwriter than we do about the main character. This woman is more eager to punish Mavis than she is to write a tale that works, and she starts by giving her character zero redeeming qualities. Mavis can clean herself up really nice for Big Appearances, but most of the time she’s dragging around in sweats and with her mascara running — if not passed out, face down, on a convenience piece of furniture. Diablo Cody passes up no opportunity to pile on the list of ugly habits and vicious character traits. After a while you start to think that in writing a story about a woman who never become a real adult, Cody has revealed that she just can’t forgive that bitch.

So at some point around the 2/3 mark, you start to feel the story working against itself. You start to feel that no prom queen, however psycho, would have wound up so utterly pathetic as Mavis. And you grow weary of the litany of humiliations she must endure. Especially because it all contrasts so strikingly with the fact that the camera just loves Theron. Sometimes I wondered whether Reitman and Cody were likewise entranced by her; there’s something schizophrenic about watching Theron slit her eyes like the meanest of all mean girls, yet her mouth is so perfectly shaped that you can’t quite concentrate fully on her meanness.

I also like the idea that she would form a weird friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt), a guy who was so bullied by Mavis and others in high school that he wound up being brutally beaten and left for dead. He still walks with a crutch and tells her freely that his penis was disfigured at the time, too. Turns out, he’s the one person willing to tell Mavis that she’s delusional and self-destructive — not that it helps, or changes anything. Not that the film really convinces you that Mavis would be friends with Matt.

So for all its good ideas, the film winds up stuck in a bunch of old-chestnut tropes that it can’t work its way through:

  • you can’t go home again
  • small town virtues vs. big city emptiness
  • will the shlubby loser wind up being Mr. Right?
  • catfight between women
  • will damaged anti-heroine heal herself?

Alas. Cody seems to have decided that her ending would avoid the gravitational pull of any of these narratives, and instead offer us something that avoids the sense of an ending at all. It feels, a bit, like she skipped out on us.

I’m looking forward to seeing Theron do more off-kilter parts. But I’m having trouble mustering any enthusiasm for Reitman and Cody. Juno was a spunky little movie — a much better than average, B+/A- kind of flick with an appealing heroine who had lines that were a little bit too good for a high school kid. But they needed more work on the script for Young Adult, a clearer vision for the movie, and less awe of their terrific lead actor. It’s too bad, because they started with a great plot concept.

Here was my first response when I attended a real-life women’s roller derby: wow, I want to do that. Several seconds later my response was, I am afraid of those women’s elbows and fists. And finally I thought, no matter how cool all these women are, this performance is just straight-up exploitation for men’s benefit…AGAIN. Drew Barrymore’s roller derby dramedy and directorial début Whip It hasn’t helped to clear up the confusion, maybe because the film has issues of its own. Or maybe because women’s roller derby is just a crazy, heightened combination of empowerment and exploitation. In other words, it’s a lot like the rest of women’s experience in 2011 America.

The first and most obvious thing that makes roller derby so appealing is the subversion of gender stereotypes built on top of over-the-top gender stereotypes. When Ellen Page (above) joins a team that calls themselves the Hurl Scouts, she’s granted a new stage name: Babe Ruthless (awesome). Other great skaters on the teams include Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, who brings every ounce of poisonous bitchiness to this role), Bloody Holly, Princess Slaya, and Eva Destruction. AWESOME. When I saw real-life teams compete, their names included:

  • Lucille Brawl
  • Rita Menweep
  • Beth Threat
  • Anna Mosity
  • Reyna Terror
  • Sedonya Face
  • …and a shoutout to the queen of them all, the stunning Dinah-Mite (ret.)

C’mon, doesn’t that make you happy, even if you learn nothing else about the sport? It inspired me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking up stage names. It’s also worth noting that real roller derby is way more empowering than in this film because the women who do it are big, scary, strong, and really fast — no one as teeny as Ellen Page or Juliette Lewis would survive. And no matter how big and strong they are, they break a lot of bones and occasionally put women in wheelchairs — facts that have kept wussy ol’ me off the track.

So you can see that in comparison to the real thing, the film’s version of roller derby seemed a little tame — or, to be specific, it seemed eager to tame roller derby. Its opening is great: small-town girl Bliss (Page) is being pushed into competing in teen beauty pageants like Miss Bluebonnet by her mother (the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden; who else could have brought such a realistic gravitas to this part?), but she can’t help herself from dying her hair blue for such events. No wonder she’s entranced when, on a shopping trip to Austin, she catches a glimpse of some of these alterna-girls on skates. She hunts down her old Barbie skates, sneaks back to audition for the team, and wows the coaches for her speed. She’s in.

This is the kind of film you need to watch with low expectations, like it’s already a cult film, because once you set aside some of the bad dialogue, the half-hearted acting, and the clichés, it’s got great little elements. Who doesn’t want to see Drew Barrymore wail on another player (left)? I’ll see anything with Alia Shawkat — she played Maeby on Arrested Development and appears as Bliss’s BFF here — and it’s got the best soundtrack with a slightly disorienting number of classic country and rock tunes (“So Caught Up In You” by .38 Special, which is suprisingly listenable in this context, and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which is always excellent). The movie explains the slightly confusing sport of roller derby efficiently so you actually understand it better than if you just attend a live bout. Every once in a while there’s a great line, like (from Maggie Mayhem): “Well, put some skates on. Be your own hero.” There’s a sweet scene as Bliss and her father (Daniel Stern) watch football on TV and Bliss impresses him by knowing a lot about what makes a good block. And (SPOILER ALERT) Bliss starts dating a cute, groovy guy who’s a member of a band, but the film concludes with her getting rid of him (awesome).

But it takes a while for Bliss to get rid of the dude and the film spends a lot of time with hackneyed clichés, the worst of which is a ridiculous underwater makeout scene/montage. (Honestly?) More broadly, the critic in me can’t help being disappointed just a little bit in Ellen Page, who doesn’t quite bring her Juno A-game to this part — even as she always makes me want to say how much I love seeing women like her who don’t fit that willowy, supermodel mold. I’m not sure whether this should be blamed on Barrymore as a rookie director or on Shauna Cross’s script (based on her novel of the same title).

So between the unrealistically svelte rollergirls, the girl-on-girl kiss in the hot tub that appeared just a little bit too much for dudes’ benefit … whatever the cause, the film sits contentedly at that three-stars-out-of-five place. Just go out and see some rollergirls yourself and try to figure out what you think of the real thing — and start thinking about your own stage name.