Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Derby” is ostensibly about the nascent American roller derby craze of the late 1970s, but the film very quickly evolves into a kitchen-sink, David Gordon Green-esque meditation on the lives of the undeniably white trash Snell family. Robert Kaylor, the film’s director, had ambitions to make a film about one Charlie O’Connell, at the time the world’s biggest roller derby star, and member of the San Francisco Bombers. On the first night of filming, though, he ran into 23-year old Mike Snell, a loagy fanboy who claimed to have dreams of becoming a roller derby star. Snell currently makes very little money, and he has a wife, two children, and a deadbeat brother to support, and he feels that, even though the money he would make at roller derby would be about equal, he would easily rise in the ranks of the sport. He has never played roller derby, and has no experience.
What starts out as a goofy, almost Errol Morris-style documentary about an offbeat pastime soon becomes an essayic look at the nature of class and wealth in America, and, in a roundabout way, the perversion of the American dream. Indeed, we spend less time watching roller derby, and more time watching Mike hanging out with buddies, making unwise financial decisions, looking after a brother who hangs out in a cave-like basement reading Playboy magazine, and ranting about the things he certainly does not want to do with his life. Mike talks openly about his infidelities to the camera, almost as if he’s bragging. His wife Christina seems to know all about his infidelities, but does not have the gumption to confront him about it.
Instead, we see Christina confronting one of the mistresses, in a scene that could go down as one of the defining moments of 1970s cinema: Christina and a friend of hers (wearing matching spandex outfits, making the scene vitally surreal) go to the home of a woman that Mike has ostensibly had an affair with. This woman is prematurely wrinkles from cigarettes, and has a fierce, uncontrolled hatred in her eyes. The scene does not unfold in an unseemly, Jerry Springer physical altercation, but a vitriolic spitting of bile into faces. Christina demands answers, and the woman locks up in hatred. The scene ends when Christina calmly walks away, and nothing has been resolved. We begin to see that this workaday hatred is likely the bulk of these people’s existence.
Punctuating these scenes of lower-class drudgery is footage of actual roller derbies. Roller derby is enjoying a renaissance right now thanks to the L.A. Derby Dolls, and will be explored again in the upcoming “Whip It.” It’s a fast, violent, exciting game, and it’s a wonder that people aren’t injured more severely. For a few moments during these scenes, we begin to feel the yearning that Mike must feel when he watches the sport.
“Derby” ends with Mike buying a motorcycle, and heading off to San Francisco to join a roller derby team. We never see him play, audition, or even talk to anyone involved in the sport. I learned, though, that he did eventually pass an audition and join the Midwest Pioneers.