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
Poverty is the great equalizer. Or at least one would think so. Imagine that in addition to financial instability you are a young Latino woman, with no aspirations, opportunities or positive role models, who does poorly in school, and has a powder keg temper. Welcome to Diana Guzman's life.
Whether it's because she refuses to talk about lipstick and boys or because she settles disagreements with her fists, Diana is an outcast. After her fourth fight in as many months, the principal informs Diana that she's run out of chances - one more fight and she's gone. She files the incident under "Whatever", and curses about her detention as she heads to a squalid little athletic club on an errand for her father.
When Diana walks into the gym, she is entranced by the combination of salty sweat, testosterone, and men boxing. In keeping with the atmosphere, she decks one of the boxers after he takes a cheap parting shot at her little brother after a bout. Rather than chastising her, the men edge back, affording her a measure of respect, the first she has ever experienced. And she likes it. Realizing that she has found her niche all she convince a skeptical, chauvinistic trainer to take her on, get money to pay him, and hide her passion from her abusive, dismissive, alcoholic father. Well, at least it's no tougher than anything else she's had to do.
Anyone expecting a female "Rocky" will be disappointed - "Girlfight" is not about endorsements, glory or bone crushing slow motion boxing sequences - boxing here serves as the background for the film, not the main attraction. The film would more appropriately be described as - and I really hate this phrase - a coming of age story. But Diana is a much more complex than the typical lead in this genre - she struggles not only with the issues we normally associate with adolescence - awkwardness, a desire to belong, and racing hormones - but also with discrimination, blinding rage, and expectations that are constantly forced upon her. As Diana's training progresses, she grows both literally and as a person -she learns to control her anger, walk with confidence, discover who she is, smile and risk the vulnerability of romance. The acting is superb.
From the initial appearance of her glowering image on screen, Michelle Rodriguez is superb. Chosen from among several hundred actors at a cattle call, Rodriguez, who had only previously worked as an extra, captures Diana's hostile intensity and indifference perfectly and has a screen presence that most actors would sell a couple of souls for. In addition to honing Diana's persona, Rodriguez underwent four and a half months of gruelling training to develop the necessary boxing skills and physique to match. The final product is one of the strongest performances I've seen since Hillary Swank's Oscar winning role in "Boys Don't Cry". Rodriguez is bolstered by a strong cast: Jaime Tirelli, who plays her Doubting Thomas trainer Hector, and Santiago Douglas, as Adrian, her sensitive partner in love and in the ring.
Rather than opt for the clean Hollywood look, Girlfight feels like a documentary both in the locations and filming. From the dingy little hole in the wall gym plastered with mottoes written on cardboard ("Champions are made, not born") to the crumbling deadly projects where Diana lives, everything has that unpolished grit that is difficult to fake. The director also chose a departure from the accepted standard of choreography in boxing films - instead of the whiplash-in-action slow motion sequences, the sparring is shown from a first person perspective with the glove coming straight at the viewer's face. I flinched more than once.
Take a date, or go alone. Either way you will agree that "Girlfight" works on many levels, and disappoints on none.
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