Girlfight: Karyn Kusama’s Striking Debut

Sundance Film Fest, January 20, 2000–Announcing the arrival of a new talent, Girlfight, Karyn Kusama’s strikingly accomplished feature directorial debut, is a sharply observed coming-of age drama set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects. Heartfelt but not sentimental, story centers on a new type of screen heroine, a Latina youngster who chooses boxing as an avenue of achieving self-fulfillment and respect. Theatrical prospects are excellent for an enormously likable film, splendidly acted by newcomer Michelle Rodriguez that holds strong crossover appeal beyond the Latino and black youth markets.

Girlfight blends in a most satisfying manner the conventions of different genres, resulting in a coherent picture that is a poignant inner-city drama, a rousing sports movie, an emotional family yarn, and above all a sweet romance that reworks the Romeo and Juliet saga, here embodied by two Latino youths who meet and pursue their relationship in and out the boxing ring. That pic works on all of these levels, without appearing soft or messagey, is at least partly attributable to the guidance provided by exec producer John Sayles.

It’s quickly established that Diana (Rodriguez) is a tough girl with a chip on her shoulder. Unbearably honest and straightforward, she gets involved in fight after fight at school, risking expulsion. Early on, Diana interferes in an argument between her chubby classmate Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra) and the attractive Veronica (Shannon Walker Williams) when they fight in the restroom over the same boy. Repeated warnings by the school principal and actual detention leave no effect on Diana.

There isn’t much comfort at home either. Diana is raised by a single father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), a weak man who, as it’s later revealed, was an abusive hubby, driving his wife to suicide when Diana was a little girl. Discriminating against his kids, Sandro favors younger son Tiny (Ray Santiago), pushing him into a boxing career, though clearly Tiny is a sensitive boy more interested in college than in sports.

Running an errand one day for her father, Diana finds herself in one of Brooklyn’s most famous boxing gyms. In this strictly male domain, particularly in Latino culture where sexual segregation prevails, Diana is perceived and treated not just as an outsider, but also as an alien from another planet. Diana’s marginal status as an outsider provides the most direct link to indie filmmaker Sayles, who has devoted his entire career to providing voice to disenfranchised groups or individuals in American society.

The first chapters demonstrate vividly what it means to be the only girl in a traditionally male territory–Diana is subjected to harassment, ridicule and contempt. Yet from her P.O.V., the gym provides both a shelter and a sanctuary, the only place she can prove her self-worth–and call home. Training sessions are conducted by Hector (Jaime Tirelli), a Panamian immigrant whose tough facade and world-weary philosophy masks decency and humanity. Bringing focus and wisdom into Diana’s troubled outside world, Hector soon becomes her surrogate father, replacing the biological one in every meaningful way.

The scenes at the gym recall any number of sports pictures (the Rocky film series), in which an underdog (usually Italian-American in Hollywood pix) is instructed by an older, savvier trainer and gradually acquires not just physical strength and skills, but also a new worldview.

In the film’s second part, Diana meets a handsome boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), who’s superficially involved with another girl. Helmer Kusama is deft in portraying the innocence and sweetness that define the emotional involvement of youngsters who’re clearly experiencing their first true love. The dates, and pull and push forces that characterize their up-and-down romance, depict effectively the erotic attraction but also the fear and anxiety of getting hurt.

The only segments that feel strained and schematic are those in which Diana and Adrian wrestle–and compete–with each other. The climactic fight, in which Diana wins, is too long and predictable. Even so, Kusama captures the racial biases that dominate boxing, particularly the no-win situation in which Adrian finds himself when forced to fight Diana. Losing a fight with a woman is embarrassing, but winning is no good either, because it doesn’t look good on a male’s resume. This sub-plot is problematic, but because the director has built so much good faith, it’s easy to overlook the messagey nature of the gym scenes, particularly that the finale that follows is emotionally satisfying.

Watching the film inevitably brings to mind the cycle of inner-city black movies, exactly a decade ago, particularly Matti Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, in which the boys felt doomed and defeated by their environment. Girlfight also bears some similarity to Leslie harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., which made the mistake of featuring an arrogant black heroine who felt superior to those around her. Quite remarkably, Girlfight earns its laurels as a more hopeful, candid, and pleasing film, both thematically and ideologically, than Rich or Harris’s youth sagas.

Stories like Girlfight don’t work unless they have a charismatic actress at the center, and indeed, Rodriguez is a natural performer who dominates every scene, reflecting with her expressive face the numerous changes in mood that the saga calls for. She is surrounded by a bunch of likable thesps, especially
Douglas, as the responsive boy who learns the true meaning of manhood and in the process turns Diana from a sloppy adolescent to a beautiful, self-respectful woman.

Though only half of the competition movies have been screened so far, Girlfight already has the distinction of being one of the best dramatic indies at Sundance this year.