Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is a troubled high schooler. She's constantly in hot water, starting fights with other students as she struggles to find both respect and dignity. One day, on an errand for her father, she stops by the gym where her younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), takes boxing lessons. Intrigued by the intensity and discipline of the fighters, she convinces an experienced trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), to teach her to box. Finally finding a place where she belongs, Diana becomes a true contender in Karyn Kusama's film, "Girlfight."

Newcomer Kusama has accomplished something quite remarkable with her debut feature film. She delves into the world of boxing with an assured understanding of the sport and just what it means those who pursue it. Her depiction of the fight club, sparring matches and bouts rings remarkably true. The ring oftentimes represents the only hope that a kid growing up in a place like the Red Hook projects of Brooklyn (the film's locale). Their fists may be their only ticket out of the project. The sheer physicality of the sport and the intensity and focus that it requires of its players is honestly laid out by the director/writer, who did some amateur boxing herself. The knowledge and understanding of the sport is apparent.

Kusama's in-depth knowledge of the fight game is coupled with her first-rate script that develops the main character, Diana, from our very first meeting with the pugnacious teenager. Diana, when we meet her, is trying to protect her only friend, Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra), from the taunts of one of the cool chicks at school. Diana has no problem with trading punches with the girl but ends up in danger of expulsion from school for fighting. Misunderstood by her teachers and her own father, Diana is heading down a road to a hard, unhappy life. When she walks into the athletic club on an errand for her dad, her eyes are opened to the glimmer of a possibility of a new life.

After Diana decks a bully who picks on her brother, she gets up the courage to approach Tiny's boxing coach, Hector, and asks him to train her. Hector agrees (after all, 10 bucks a lesson is still 10 bucks) as long as she can pay his fee. Diana winds up stealing the money from her father and pawns a piece of jewelry that belonged to her late mother. She secretly begins her training under Hector's rigid rules: "If you don't sweat for me, you're out of my life." And the metamorphosis for the girl is astounding.

As Diana undergoes the intense rigors of her training, she finds that the things that used to bother her don't anymore. As she develops her pugilistic skills, she also learns to control her hair-trigger temper and channels her new found strength, developing an emotional vulnerability that marks her real entry into womanhood. One of the results of this entry is an attraction to one of the other boxers, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a handsome young guy trying to make a career for himself as a pro fighter. The two grow into friends, with the hope of romance, as their tentative verbal sparring is replaced by the real thing when they enter the ring as opponents. It's an odd, but believable, love story.

More significant to Diana's development as an adult and a boxer is the influence of Hector. The trainer had his day in the ring and gave it up before it wrecked him. Now, he trains fighters and gives Diana a chance to hone her raw talent into something that she will be proud of. Hector is a lovable Yoda for Diana as he takes her, unquestioningly, into his home when she has problems with her father, Sandro (Paul Calderon). He also takes her to her first professional fights where "maybe you'll learn something." The smile on Diana's face while watching the bouts is proof that she does.

Michelle Rodriguez gives a terrific debut performance with an arc that begins with sullen hostility and changes and grows into a self-assured confidence that comes with making yourself the best you can be. The unknown Rodriguez knew nothing about boxing before signing on to the film. Her months of training and hard work are amply displayed on the screen as she deftly practices her combo punches and gets into the ring to mix it up with her opponents - mostly guys. When Diana is chosen to compete in the 1st Gender Blind Amateur Boxing Competition, you're right there rooting for her. You watch her grow and change from an angry girl to a confident and capable adult and are happy for her by story's end.

Jaime Tirelli ("A Simple Wish") is simply terrific as Hector. The weary trainer has seen kids and their hopes come and go, but he recognizes something special in Diana and is willing to go the distance if she is. Tirelli reminds me of Joe Mantegna in his laid back, assured style. The actor exudes a warmth and compassion that is tempered by the reality of his world. As Diana's mentor, he carves out a unique performance in what could have been a cliched rehash of the Mickey character from the "Rocky" movies. Instead, Tirelli gives us a fresh, heartfelt character whose influence on his young friend is palpable.

"Girlfight" may be a first feature, but the look of the film belies that fact. Aided by the involvement of John Sayles ("Passion Fish") as executive producer and his long time collaborators Sarah Green, Martha Griffin and Maggie Renzi producing, the film has a high-quality look and feel. Director of photography Patrick Cady captures the tense action in the ring using the camera as an opponent, fluidly showing the fight action from the boxer's point of view.

The film's finale, at the gender free match, shows the true equality of men and women. It's not the gender that should dictate life roles, but the desire, ability and resolution to be the best that counts, regardless of sex. Professional boxing may be the first male sports bastion that gets gender integrated in the near future. "Girlfight" shows that, like the Women's National Basketball Association, women are capable at competing at the professional level with men and it's only the old-fashioned, narrow-minded thinking that prevents it from happening.

The strong-minded script, solid direction, terrific perfs by Rodriguez and Tirelli, strong role models and message of personal empowerment make "Girlfight" a film that is well worth seeing. It's a surprising debut on several levels and a pleasant one at that. I give it a B+.

Diana's (Michelle Rodriguez) getting into trouble at her Brooklyn High School over her pugilistic tendencies while her single dad Sandro (Paul Calderon, "Out of Sight") is pushing weekly boxing lessons on her artistically inclined younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago). When Sandro won't give her an allowance, Diana secretly takes matters into her own hands and convinces Tiny's trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli, "City of Hope") that she can come up with his $10 per lesson fee in this year's Sundance Grand Jury and Director winner, "Girlfight."

"Girlfight" cops a tough feminine 'tude from the get go when star Rodriguez, leaning on a locker, glares up at us from beneath her eyelashes, recalling Malcom McDowell's punk in "A Clockwork Orange." Soon Diana's beating on a pretty classmate who's dared to steal the less attractive Marisol's (Elisa Bocanegra) boyfriend and insult her in the process. She picks up Tiny at the Brooklyn Athletic Club and hauls off and belts Ray, a boxer and classmate ('I couldn't resist,' she says). When Diana goes home, she glowers as she performs the womanly duties of serving dinner and cleaning up, listens to a TV news report of a woman whose boyfriend set her on fire, and watches a neighborhood woman struggle with her small children on the street below.

Diana's not all about feminist brooding sullenness, however, as can be seen when she begins formal boxing training and the top amateur featherweight, Adrian (Santiago Douglas) catches her eye. She listens to Hector, but watches Adrian flirt with his oh-so-feminine girlfriend. Soon they're thrown into each other's company after an amateur bout, sharing dinner at a diner (she orders a rare cheeseburger with extra bacon, he has a salad with a cup of soup) and a ride home. Adrian's intrigued by this woman he can talk to, and, after squiring his trophy girl to an event Diana also attends, is forced to realize Diana's the one for him. Then the real confrontation presents itself - Hector is entering his prize boxer, Diana, in the finals for the amateur featherweight championship - against Adrian.

Writer/Director Karyn Kusama (one time John Sayles' assistant, supported here by his long time producers Sarah Green and Maggie Renzie) has fashioned a film whose main character is so immediately in your face you reject letting her in. Gradually, however, Kusama's screenplay and newcomer Rodriguez' performance win you over before you realize it because they're just so real. Diana, we learn, has a reason to be angry and has very wisely channelled it into something productive. She's also not all fight, caring for Tiny and Marisol, while trying to establish trust with Adrian. She's believable physically, training and sparring in the gym. She subtly projects emotions as well, such as when, discovering a home totally unlike her own, her eyes dart around, taking in all the family pictures. She can be plain (particularly with an eye blackened!) or show smoldering sexiness.

Support is equally strong and well cast, particularly Santiago Douglas' Adrian who undergoes an anti-macho catharsis because of knowing Diana and Jaime Tirelli's good-hearted Hector, a small time trainer whose mind is opened when he finds talent in an unexpected package.

The screenplay never lets its characters take routine paths and builds with a graceful arc. The climatic scene is preceeded by a beautiful silhouette shot of Hector asking Diana 'Do you know him inside? Do you know yourself inside?' The denouement is beautifully realized in front of the dingy window in the broom closet that's been deeded to Diana for a locker in the all-male domain.

Kusama's direction is sure and strong. Along with her cinematographer Patrick Cady and production designer Stephen Beatrice, a real sense of place is created. Whether on the streets, in homes, at school or the gym, we know we're in a real, urban neighborhood. Fight scenes are immediate, with some punches coming right at the camera lens.

The unique score by Theodore Shapiro is heavily percussive, often sounding like castanets backing a metronome. Sound by Mary Ellen Porto is sharp, punctuated with thematic bells and buzzers from school halls to ringside.

"Girlfight" is the real thing.


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