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Directed by
Karyn Kusama
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis: Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is a high school student near graduation living in Brooklyn's projects with her father Sandro (Paul Calderon) and younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago). Her quick temper and attitude earn her a reputation of troublemaker. At her request, boxing trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli) agrees reluctantly to coach her. To everyone's surprise, Diana, who relishes in the sport, is soon competing against both sexes - and when she has to fight Adrian (Santiago Douglas) their budding relationship is tested.

'Tis the season for challenging gender stereotypes, it seems. With Billy Elliot we were given a boy who was supposed to be a boxer but wanted to be a ballet dancer. In Girlfight we have a girl who's supposed to... well, be a girl, wanting to be a boxer. Both films are similar in plot structure - socially-disadvantaged background and the anger it breeds, unsympathetic, single male parent, money problems, etc. Clearly this is a well-worn narrative template. However whereas the first film is a fluffy, feelgood outing with but a token relation to its social context, Girlfight balances its characters' dreams of escape with a constant awareness of the realities of their actual circumstances. In both films boxing stands for dominant male order. In Billy Elliot, the gay agenda is worn clearly visible on its sleeve as it works towards it final apotheosis. In contrast, Girlfight is not a feminist flagwaver but an understated, affecting story of the everyday struggles to be one's own person and the gains and losses  that are its result. (The actual boxing scenes are relatively tame and not particularly convincing).

In this respect, not only does the script seem more experientially-grounded but Kusama (who was also its writer) but it adopts a more realistic, documentary style of filming (close-focussed, hand-held camera work, contemporary time, real locations). The actors fill their well-drawn roles with the conviction which is often the gift of non-professionals.  Rodriguez, for whom this is a first-time appearance, is compelling (she has continued to have a career in action movies but has never come close to the exposure this film gave her), and the dynamic between her character and that of Adrian is quite movingly developed. On the down side, I found the underdeveloped character of Diana's father improbably mild, even if he was supposed to be a reformed drunk.

As seems so often the case, the success of the film is a function of its status as an independent project, one in which the director (who is also usually the writer) brings to fruition a long-nurtured idea and full credit goes to Kusama for such a rewarding take on relatively familiar subject matter. (John Sayles, one of America's independent film's greyhairs was an executive producer on this and also appears in it as the science teacher)..The excellent soundtrack is a bonus that works well with the overall setting of the narrative.




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