“Girlfight’s” first image tells you everything, pulling you into what turns out to be a powerful and empathetic melodrama with feminist underpinnings.
Eighteen-year-old high school senior Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez, in a potent debut) is leaning against her locker and giving us the Stare. Sullen, pugnacious, looking out from under half-closed lids like a terror from hell, Diana’s punishing attitude is more than unnerving, it’s authentic enough to add conviction to everything that follows.
That air of reality is essential because in broad outline the plot of “Girlfight” is certainly recognizable. This is, after all, a boxing story, the latest in a long line of familiar fistic tales like “Golden Boy,” “Body and Soul,” “Champion” and “Rocky,” in which the disappointed, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised find their way into the ring and try to make things right.
“Girlfight’s” writer and director, Karyn Kusama, who split the Grand Jury Prize and won the directing award at Sundance for this impressive debut feature, has been shrewd enough to see how malleable and forever young these traditional forms can be, and how they can take up new causes and sensibilities. For the difference in this film is that the person needing to become somebody through time in the ring, the underdog being empowered, turns out to be a woman.
Given that look on her face, it’s no shock that Diana lives in a state of constant rage. Continually busted for fighting in school, her undisguised hostility and smart-mouthed comebacks, not to mention a chip on her shoulder the size of Bensonhurst, all combine to earn remarks from her peers like “She should be put in a cage” and the more pointed “That bitch is psycho.”
Diana lives in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, a working-class area where “you can get killed doing your laundry.” Her mother died when she was young, and the family now consists of affable younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) and their father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), a sour layabout who spends considerable time playing cards and drinkingbeer.
One fateful day, Sandro deputizes Diana to go to the Brooklyn Athletic Club to pay a trainer named Hector for the boxing lessons he’s giving Tiny. This turns out to be a classic run-down establishment, filled with aging characters and hand-lettered signs that say things like “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” Something clicks for Diana as soon as she walks in the door. She instinctively senses a determination and purposefulness she hasn’t found elsewhere--not to mention a chance to hit people.
Hector (Jaime Tirelli, in one of the film’s many fine supporting performances) isn’t so sure. It’s not right, he says when she asks for lessons; it’s dangerous, girls can’t fight. Etc. But like everyone else Diana comes in contact with, he’s as fascinated as taken aback by the nonstop ferocity that oozes out of this young woman. Finally, he agrees--how could he not?--with a single caveat: “You don’t sweat for me, you’re out of my life.”
Diana, obviously, is the light of nobody’s life, the polar opposite of a character audiences instinctively warm to. It’s the challenge of “Girlfight” to get us on this person’s side, to convincingly humanize her without either removing her edge or diluting her fury or her tendency to push every situation to an extreme. It’s a challenge that’s much more than met.
Though the sport turns out to be a greater test than Diana anticipated, she readily takes to boxing. It’s a place where she feels the warmth of accomplishment and where she’s treated with the kind of respect she’s never had before. Also, because it’s an activity where there’s no one to depend on but yourself, it perfectly suits her worldview.
Perhaps inevitably, the gym also provides a romantic partner in the person of a promising young fighter named Adrian (a convincing Santiago Douglas). Soon, though it violates Hector’s Rule No. 1 (“no personal business in the gym”), these two take tentative steps toward becoming involved. It’s one of the marks of this film’s authenticity that both participants approach this possibility with a believable sense of wariness.
Without Rodriguez as its lead, “Girlfight’s” many accomplishments are difficult to imagine, let alone achieve. Speaking after the film’s debut screening at Sundance, director Kusama said that while the actress made a strong first impression, “she had no training in any way, and casting her was too frightening to imagine.” While only time and other roles will reveal the extent of Rodriguez’s talent, a more promising debut is hard to imagine. “I kind of lucked out,” the director added. “I told my casting director I needed Brando as a teenage girl, and I found her.”
As for Kusama herself, she’s a John Sayles disciple who has well learned his lessons of craft, empathy and respect. Her cast is uniformly strong; cinematographer Patrick Cady has made the film both gritty and somehow poetic; and though the plot’s last section may raise a few eyebrows, the script has so carefully prepared us that we go with it and are glad we did. Watching “Girlfight,” it’s hard not to feel that the writer-director is her protagonist’s double in terms of drive, commitment and ability. This is not a great story in the abstract for Kusama; this is something she felt, and deeply.
* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: considerable profanity and realistic boxing scenes involving women and men.
Michelle Rodriguez: Diana
Jaime Tirelli: Hector
Paul Calderon: Sandro
Santiago Douglas: Adrian
Ray Santiago: Tiny
Screen Gems and the Independent Film Channel Productions present a Green/Renzi production, released by Screen Gems. Director Karyn Kusama. Producers Sarah Green, Martha Griffin, Maggie Renzi. Executive producers John Sayles, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan. Screenplay Karyn Kusama. Cinematographer Patrick Cady. Editor Plummy Tucker. Costumes Luca Mosca, Marco Cattoretti. Music Theodore Shapiro. Production design Stephen Beatrice. Running time:1 hour, 53 minutes.
In limited release.