Girlfight (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The focal point of one of the 2000 Sundance Film Festival's more serious bidding wars was this year's co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic Competition) and sole winner of the Directing Award (Dramatic Competition), Girlfight. At one point, no less than three distributors were vying for the rights to the movie. In the end, the winner was Sony Pictures' Screen Gems, which trumped both Artisan and Fine Line. (Surprisingly, Miramax professed not to be interested, even though this is the kind of film they normally go after tooth-and-nail.) From first-time director Karyn Kusama, Girlfight is a well crafted and emotionally satisfying debut - a fine drama about self-discovery and female empowerment. It's about taking charge of one's own life when it appears to be hurtling out-of-control towards disaster.

As the title implies, the picture tells the story of a would-be girl boxer. Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez in a coming-out performance that is equal parts fire and luminosity) is a frequent troublemaker at school, where she's just a few months shy of graduation. However, her propensity for getting into fights has her one demerit away from expulsion. She has no boyfriend, and her few female friends are wary of her volatile nature. Her home life isn't much better. Her mother has been dead for years and there's a slow-burning, mutual antagonism between Diana and her father (Paul Calderon). The only one she seems to care for is her geeky brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago). One day, after dropping something off at the Brooklyn Athletic Club, Diana decides that she wants to take boxing lessons. She coaxes one of the coaches, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), to teach her for $10 a session. Soon, she is channeling her hostility and energy into the sport and is becoming less disruptive at school. At home, however, her relationship with her father edges closer to an explosion of physical violence.

In today's society, boxing is rarely seen as a positive thing - and it's not a surprise considering the way the professional level of the sport has become riddled with corruption. Thugs dominate the ring and crooks manage them. Boxing movies like Girlfight, which show that there can be a positive aspect to the sport - getting participants off the street and giving them a focal point for pent-up adolescent angst and anger - are rare. Rarer still are motion pictures like this that don't descend into sermonizing and over-the-top melodrama. One of Girlfight's most notable features is its finely modulated sense of drama. It tells a compelling story by making the characters and their situations real. And, unlike in most sports movies where the underdog must inevitably triumph at the end, the victor's identity in Girlfight is very much in doubt. In a way, that's because the outcome of the "big bout" isn't all that important. This picture is much more about Diana's succeeding in life than it is about her winning in the ring (although the synergy between the two is undeniable). And, even though the movie at times echoes the likes of Rocky and Raging Bull, it possesses its own rhythm and approach.

One of the film's subplots has Diana developing a romance with a male boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas). This element could have easily thrown the entire movie out-of-whack, but it is handled with a sensitivity that maintains the production's carefully constructed sense of balance. When Diana's priorities come into conflict with those of her boyfriend and threaten the stability of their new relationship, Kusama doesn't resort to a melodramatic contrivance to resolve the situation. She allows events to play out as they might in real life, letting the "chips fall as they may", so to speak.

It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and Kusama takes advantage of this maxim with numerous close-ups of her actors. Rodriguez's eyes, hard as agates and filled with fiery determination, speak volumes about her character, so it's no surprise that the camera finds them repeatedly, not only during the boxing matches, but before and after. In fact, the first shot is of the actress staring defiantly into the lens, daring the audience to doubt her attitude.

Girlfight is an example of the kind of movie that a director can make when she approaches the project with a single-minded determination and a passion for the project. Such was the strength of Kusama's vision that she gained the support of independent producer Maggie Renzi and her longtime partner, John Sayles (who not only executive produced the film, but has a cameo appearance in it as a science teacher). The actors are all unknowns, although Jaime Tirelli, who plays Hector, bears more than a passing resemblance to Joe Mantegna (so much so that numerous people in the audience thought Mantegna was the star).

Girlfight has a hard side, because it's about characters who have been dealt a bad hand by life, but it is ultimately emotionally satisfying because it explores the way they fight and struggle to right themselves. This picture surprised me with its strength of plot and character development. For a movie that entered my Sundance screening schedule almost by accident, Girlfight turned out to be one of the festival's highlights. Now, following screenings at the 2000 Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, Screen Gems will turn loose the movie into North American theaters, allowing audiences outside of the festival circuit a chance to see this small cinematic jewel.

Girlfight (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2000-09-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1