Roller Town: A hidden Canadian comedy gem
The unfortunate truth is the days of Bob Clark and Ivan Reitman making big budget comedies north of the border are long gone. Since the 80s, Canadian comedy talent heads south to sell their wares and has left the Canadian feature comedy a leaner, even more independent step-sibling to our prestige dramas. Consequently, there is a veritable goldmine of hidden Canadian comedy you may have missed during their short theatrical runs, including such gems as Picnicface’s supremely bizarre 2012 cult comedy Roller Town.
If that last sentence seemed just like a bunch of confusing words, Picnicface was an eight-person sketch comedy troupe based in Halifax, which became popular in the late 00s/early 10s. If you’re familiar with any of their work, it’s likely their early NSFW viral hit Powerthirst, which they leveraged into saltier internet sketches with College Humor. In 2010 Picnicface had their own forward-thinking sketch show on The Comedy Network in Canada, which mixed the absurdity of Kids in The Hall with the nightmare comedy of Adult Swim, all while being distinctly Canadian and very odd. Though the show only lasted one season, and in spite of their rabid cult of fans petitioning hard for a second, fans got some cold comfort from a book deal and knowledge the troupe was working on a feature film.
The distinctness of Picnicface’s comedic voice comes through in Roller Town partially due to its unique construction. The film half exists as a collection of sketch-like characters played by the troupe, ranging from a classical roller skating instructor, to a corporal punishment-obsessed grandpa, to some sort of brick throwing gnome. All of this is hung on a fairly straight parody of the long forgotten roller disco microgenre. Film buffs will love how accurately the movie skewers 70s and 80s artifacts like Roller Boogie, Skatetown USA, Xanadu and Disco Godfather. Troupe member Andrew Bush is behind the camera and manages to mash those two disparate feels into one comedic narrative.
The movie follows roller disco-obsessed orphan Leo (Mark Little) as he simultaneously fights to save the local rink from a mob boss that killed his father (George Basil), and falls for a bougie girl (Kayla Lorette) causing social tensions. It’s cliche for comedy’s sake of course, but gives a wonderful base to play things straight against the wild world around them. Set in a fever dream 70s world, the movie features everything from an upper-crust rollerskating conservatory, to a soundtrack filled with Rich Aucoin-created generic disco songs, including one earworm so filthy I can’t write it out on this blog.
The film shines outside of Picnicface as well, with people like Toronto comedian Pat Thornton stealing scenes of their own. Thornton’s henchman Beef is in my comedy character hall-of-fame for being a supremely dumb character that still manages to be so sweet his own beleaguered boss can’t hate him. Kayla Lorette also makes the most of the usually thankless role of female romantic lead in a comedy by being the one sane person in this madcap world. Her straight man routine features endless GIF-able reaction faces, and gets some of the best laughs out of the movie.
This movie is definitely not for everyone, but if it’s for you, it is deeply for you. While it had a short release here, it had legs on American Netflix and has a real cult following worldwide. Among its most outspoken fans is Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. Any movie deserves 15 minutes, and if Roller Town is for you, you’ll be easily laughing by then.
The story of Picnicface doesn’t end with Roller Town as many members continue to direct, write and star in comedy. Keeping up and seeking out independent comedy movies is a great way to understand both the stars that are coming out of Canada, and the future of the scene. At the best of times you might uncover a treasure trove of comedic talents like Picnicface, but hey, even though comedy is subjective, you might have some laughs along the way.