(4 out of 5 stars)
Eighteen-year-old Diana Guzman is all seething attitude, sullen and furious at the world for some as-yet-unknown reason. Just marking time until she graduates from high school, she goes out of her way to get into fights. In the hit or be-hit world of the Brooklyn projects, where generations endure the same cycle of poverty, she'd much rather be the one throwing the punches.
Diana is the central character of Girlfight, a stunning film debut for both writer-director Karyn Kusama and her star, Michelle Rodriguez.
Girlfight is an excellent example of how all of the elements of filmmaking - acting, directing, photography, and music - combine to make the story better than it initially is. In many ways, Girlfight is a teenage Rocky, but Rodriguez makes her character so much more as Kusama's script slowly peels back the layers of Diana's protective attitude, showing us how she got to be the way she is and exposing her fears and vulnerabilities.
Diana lives with her father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), and younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), in a Brooklyn housing project "where you can get killed doing your laundry." Tiny is a pleasant young man who dreams of winning a scholarship to art school, much to the derision of his father, who spends most of his time playing cards and drinking beer. In order to toughen up his son, Sandro makes Tiny take boxing lessons at the Brooklyn Athletic Club.
One day he sends Diana to the club with a payment for Tiny's trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli). The gym is old and run-down, with peeling paint and the smell of sweat so pervasive, it oozes out of the walls. But something in the gym speaks to Diana. Maybe it's the determination and purpose of the men and boys who are working out, maybe it's the fact that people are hitting each other and aren't getting in trouble for it. In any case, she confronts Hector and asks for lessons.
Hector is less than enthusiastic, but he agrees. We'd like to think he sees some quality in the young woman that no one else has been able to spot, but it's more likely that he figures it's an easy way to make a couple of training fees before she quits.
To Diana's considerable surprise, boxing is not just about hitting. It's about patience, strategy, and physical fitness, disciplines that have been lacking in her life. Those disciplines, coupled with the praise she earns from Hector, feed the young woman's spirit, and the more toned her body becomes, the more self-control and self-respect she acquires.
This doesn't happen overnight, of course. One of the major accomplishments of Girlfight is that it allows Diana to grow and change without taking away her edge, her attitude, and her fury. And fury she still has, some aimed at her father, whom she blames for her mother's death many years before, and much aimed at herself, for accepting years of verbal and emotional abuse from her father.
Not everything about Girlfight is perfect. There's Diana's inevitable romance with a young boxer named Adrian (Kusama's sly poke at Rocky, perhaps?) and her Big Fight, which is as close to a cheesy conceit as this movie gets. However, these flaws are slight, taken in the overall context of the powerful film.
Fine acting fills Girlfight, from Calderon as the layabout Sandro to Santiago Douglas as the handsome but confused Adrian. As Hector, Tirelli gets the most sympathetic role. A trainer who is good at his job but doesn't have much to work with, Hector slowly trades his world-weariness for excitement as he finds in Diana the determination of a winner.
But the film belongs to Rodriguez. In describing her search for a young actress to play Diana, Kusama said, "I needed Brando as a teenage girl, and I found her." Rodriguez's screen presence is riveting, and her transformation from sullen, raging, teenager to self-assured young woman is totally believable.
The movie may leave us wondering whether Diana will continue with boxing. But there is no doubt that, whatever she does, Diana will always be a contender.