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
Casting unknown Michelle Rodriguez as Diana was a stroke of genius. She's perfect. Her acting inexperience actually works in her favor. We've never seen her before so it really feels like her story. She also brings across genuine toughness. This works against her though, because we never doubt her. You never have to cheer for her to win because she never goes up against any fighter we don't think she can beat. So as a boxing movie, it fails.
Then again, this isn't really a boxing movie. How do you make a movie about a girl who wants to be a boxer that isn't a boxing movie? You don't. But Karyn Kusama has anyway. Like many indie films, "Girlfight" defies classification or genre and stands on its own as folklore that could darn near happen in real life.
Diana is doing poorly in school. She beats up people she doesn't like (all the other girls in her school for example). She doesn't fit in. Her father is forcing her kid brother Tiny to learn to box so he can defend himself when things get tough. He gives Tiny money for his boxing sessions and gives Diana nothing, as if she has no need to defend herself, nor anything worthwhile to make of her life. Tiny wants to go to art school (cliche', yuck), so he gives up his boxing allowance to Diana, who actually wants to box. Things get complicated when Diana falls for another boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), who's looking to turn pro. From there the story winds down toward the inevitable...the two meet in the amateur title fight.
What left me cold was that I never found any of this all that interesting. It's all just a bit too believable. Kids with tough lives growing up in rough urban areas fall back on sports. A lot of professional boxers have risen from these circumstances. The mental and physical toughness this upbringing requires lends itself to a game like boxing, where anger is your friend. So this time it's a girl. Big deal.
Or there's another position to take: finally, a boxing movie about a girl. Women's boxing has been around a long time. The brutality we usually see in boxing films is replaced here by discussions of people's their lives and their feelings. The whole fighting thing is used as a platform from which to paint a larger picture. Respect. Overcoming adversity. Self-discovery.
I recommend "Girlfight" because it has a good spirit and is an example of some great work by a first time director. The dialogue never rises above soap opera quality, but the story itself actually changed my view on some things. Yes, the world now seems like a better place. A film did that.
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