Girlfight doesn't pull any punches
A gender spin on the boxing genre, Girlfight is not your sister's hairpulling and eyes-closed slapfest. Gritty, but shockingly tender, too, the debut film from Karyn Kusama follows directionless Latina Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) from Brooklyn high school delinquency to a kind of salvation and self-affirmation in the boxing ring. Diana is introduced with her signature glowering Clockwork Orange stare, leaning against a locker as swarms of students pass by, before she jumps the school bitch in the high school hallway. Full of directionless anger, it's implied that Diana's rage has, in at least this case, a subtext as she takes her anger out on the pretty, girly-girl with an Aaron Spelling heart who knows how to play the gender game.
Diana is as mad at the polarized world of males and females as she is by a home life that reaffirms those divisions. While her father pays for her brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), a sensitive, concave-chested kid with aspirations of art school, to take boxing lessons to toughen him up for the mean streets, Diana is an "embarrassment" to her father: too butch in her cornrows, defiant swagger and Army flak jacket. "Would it kill you to wear a skirt once in a while?" he says disgustedly.
Diana finds an exorcism of her demons, including her mother's death and a family history of domestic violence, in boxing. She convinces one of the macho coaches at her brother's gym to give her lessons and eventually proves to be a kind of prodigy in the ring. Director Kusama manages to make Diana's sparring and amateur scenes in the boxing ring sizzle, but she is just as adept at rendering the details of Diana's life outside the ring. While capturing the dead-end housing projects of hard-edged Red Hook, Brooklyn and the tough-talking kids of that milieu, Kusama also invests these kids with real soul and intelligence. Diana has as devastating a mouth on her as a one-two punch, and she uses that personality tic as another expression of her inability — or refusal — to make nice and pretty. All thorny attitude, she's a streetwise Brooklyn Heather (with a heart), who tosses off bon mots as capable of cutting her classmates as her father down to size.
Diana soon falls for another boxer, the wiry, sweet Adrian (Santiago Douglas) with Jason Priestly hair and a willingness to listen. The most exciting aspect of their relationship is how the kids flip-flop expected male and female behavior: Diana wants sex but Adrian has to hold off for his next fight, and while Adrian fits easily into the gym culture, Diana is a Brando-esque rebel. The scene of the couple in Adrian's bed, making out but abstaining because of Adrian's training regime, has a fly-on-the-wall intimacy and affectionate humor that characterizes almost all of the scenes of Diana and her peers.
While most boxing films would have the training sessions and eventual rise to the climactic bout parallel a secondary romance story, in Girlfight things are a little more complicated. The closer Diana gets to her goal of competition in the newly gender-blind NY amateur ranks, the more her romance is jeopardized. Because for Adrian to accept her as a lover, Diana wants to first have him accept her in the boxing ring as an equal.
As Diana, acting newcomer Rodriguez is the heart and soul of the picture; a brooding, whipsmart but intuitive kid who wears a perpetual chip on her shoulder for self-preservation's sake. But the closer she gets to Adrian and to her father-figure coach, the more the swagger begins to soften, the more she reveals herself, becoming more earnest and vulnerable.
Girlfight has energy and imagination and, in an indie industry where every other film that passes through Sundance is a "hit," this winner of a Sundance Best Directing Award and shared Grand Jury Prize is one of the few festival stand-outs to really deserve all those accolades, a smart statement on sexual politics amongst the high school set with more wisdom and savvy than most adult dramas.