At 18, Diana has a chip on her shoulder; she's close to expulsion from high school for fighting, her mother is dead, her dad is surly, the popular girls at school set her teeth on edge, she knows men can cause pain. When she picks up her younger brother at a Brooklyn gym where he boxes to please his father, she decides she wants to train. Hector, a coach, reluctantly agrees to teach her. It's soon clear to him that Diana has talent; he pushes her. She spends time with another young fighter, Adrian, who has a girlfriend, but Diana intrigues him and stirs real feelings he tries to articulate. She, too, must accommodate her toughness and ironic detachment to her feelings for him. Written by
The first step to getting off of that road that leads to nowhere is recognizing that you're on it in the first place; then it becomes a matter of being assertive and taking positive steps to overcome the negative influences in your life that may have put you on that road to begin with. Which is exactly what a young Latino girl does in `Girlfight,' written and directed by Karyn Kusama. Diana (Michelle Rodriguez) is an eighteen-year-old High School senior from the projects in Brooklyn, facing expulsion after her fourth fight in the halls since the beginning of the semester. She affects a `whatever' attitude which masks a deep-seated anger that threatens to take her into places she'd rather not go. She lives with her father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), with whom she has a very tentative relationship, and her younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago). With her life teetering on the brink of dissolution, she desperately needs an outlet through which to channel the demons that plague her. And one day she finds it, without even looking for it, when she stops by the gym where Tiny trains. Ironically, Tiny wants nothing to do with boxing; he wants to go to art school, but Sandro is determined that his son should be able to take care of himself on the streets, and pays the ten dollars a week it costs for his lessons. When Diana convinces Tiny's trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), to take her on, and approaches her father for the money, under the guise of calling it a weekly allowance (she doesn't want him to know what she wants the money for), Sandro turns her down and tells her to go out and earn her own money. Ultimately, with Tiny's help she finds a way, and the ring soon becomes her second home. It's an environment to which she readily adapts, and it appears that her life is about to take a turn for the better. And the fact that she will have to fight men, not women, in `gender blind' competitions, does not faze her in the least. Diana has found her element.
First time writer/director Karyn Kusama has done a terrific job of creating a realistic setting for her story, presenting an honest portrait of life in the projects and conveying that desperation so familiar to so many young people who find themselves in dead-end situations and on that road that leads to nowhere. And there's no candy coating on it, either; as Hector tells Diana when she asks him how he came to be where he is, `I was a fighter once. I lost.' Then, looking around the busy gym, `Like most of these guys, they're going to lose, too. But it's all they know--' And it's that honesty of attitude, as well as the way in which the characters are portrayed, that makes this movie as good as it is. It's a bleak world, underscored by the dimly lit, run-down gym-- you can fairly smell the sweat of the boxers-- and that sense of desolation that hangs over it all like a pall, blanketing these people who are grasping and hanging on to the one and only thing they have, all that they know.
Making her screen debut, Michelle Rodriguez is perfectly cast as Diana, infusing her with a depth and brooding intensity that fairly radiates off of her in waves. She is so real that it makes you wonder how much of it is really Rodriguez; exactly where does the actor leave off and the character begin? Whatever it is, it works. It's a powerful, memorable performance, by an actor from whom we will await another endeavor with great anticipation. She certainly makes Diana a positive role model, one in whom many hopefully will find inspiration and the realization that there are alternative paths available in life, at least to those who would seek them out.
As positive as this film is, however, it ends on something of an ambiguous note; though Diana obviously has her feet on the ground, there's no indication of where she's headed. Is this a short term fix for her, or is she destined to become the female counterpart of Hector? After all, realistically (and in light of the fact that the realism is one of the strengths of this film), professional boxing isn't exactly a profession that lends itself to, nor opens it's arms to women. And in keeping with the subject matter of the film, and the approach of the filmmaker, an affirmation of the results of Diana's assertiveness would have been appropriate.
The supporting cast includes Santiago Douglas (Adrian), Elisa Bocanegra (Marisol), Alicia Ashley (Ricki) and Thomas Barbour (Ira). Though it delivers a very real picture of life to which many will be able to identify, there are certain aspects of `Girlfight,' that stretch credibility a bit, regarding some of what happens in the ring. That aside, it's a positive film that for the most part is a satisfying experience. I rate this one 7/10.
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