Karyn Kusama’s first feature film, “Girlfight,” is an impressive debut, an enthralling story about an urban teen finding her place in life. And that place happens to be a boxing ring.
Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) lives with her milquetoast brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) and their father, Sandro (Paul Calderon). Their mother died some time ago. Dad plays cards with the boys a lot and raises his kids in a slummy Brooklyn tenement.
While Sandro pays for Tiny to take boxing lessons at the local boys’ club — he seems to know this kid, who wants to be an artist, will have the crap beaten out of him on a regular basis otherwise — he pays little attention to Diana. For her part, she’s prone to fighting in school and caring little about her future (or her present, for that matter).
One day she has occasion to stop by the gym while Tiny is there, and she likes it. She tells the trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), that she wants to take lessons. He says no because she’s a girl, and also because she has no money. Once she steals some from her dad, Hector changes his mind. He’ll train her, but he doubts she can ever actually fight anyone. What man would want to fight a woman?
She’s a natural, of course, and soon gets to have bouts, in part because of some amateur female competitors, but also because of a new gender-blind policy that some of the local boxing organizations are trying out. She also meets the hunky Adrian (Santiago Douglas), another boxer whom she develops a relationship with. (In one of the film’s most surreal — and, in a way, very touching — moments, Diana tells Adrian she loves him while she’s in the ring, punching him.)
“Girlfight” dabbles in several genres known for their cliches: boxing movies, sports movies, movies about lower-income kids beating the odds, etc. Yet it avoids the pitfalls those genres usually encounter, discovering fresh new material in the time-worn plot devices. The matter of Diana’s father’s opposition to her boxing is dealt with in a very realistic manner, for example: Yes, he’s against it, but no, it doesn’t get resolved the way those things usually get resolved in these movies.
One of the advantages of doing an independent film is that you have to shoot on location, because you can’t afford to build sets. As a result, everything in “Girlfight” looks real. The documentary-style camerawork helps with that, but so do the authentic locations: real schools, real inner-city gyms, a real run-down apartment.
Michelle Rodriguez is a newcomer, but don’t expect her to go away. Her work here is as good as many actresses are capable of after a dozen films are under their belts. Diana’s toughness is tempered by an endearing desire to succeed at something. The fact that she succeeds against all the odds dovetails nicely with the film’s success, working against just as many obstacles and coming off just as victorious.
A (; )