USA 2000
director / script : Karyn Kusama
producers include : John Sayles, Maggie Renzi
cinematography : Patrick Cady
editing : Plummy Tucker
music : Theodore Shapiro
lead actors : Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli, Santiago Douglas, Paul Calderon
113 minutes

In the deprived north-east, a tough-guy widower gives his scrawny teenage son cash for boxing lessons in the local tough, working-class gym – but the kid doesn’t go. Billy Elliot? Nearly. This time, we’re in the north-east of America – Brooklyn – and the lad isn’t the focus of attention: he’s ducking the gym to let his sister take his place. But while Billy Elliot‘s critical raves translated into box-office success and Oscar nominations, Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight never found the audience it deserved – a disgrace.

‘Boxing pictures’ have never been an easy sell, and the fact that it’s a girl taking the punches probably didn’t help matters, even though Girlfight is as much a ‘teen pic’ as vaguely-similar smash Save The Last Dance. It’s essentially a character study of the ferociously strong-willed Diana Guzman (Rodriguez) and the world she inhabits, brought to the screen with an unfussy freshness that makes Girlfight a real pleasure to watch.

Unlile most boxing movies, Girlfight is about a featherweight – we’re a long way from the brooding middleweight force of Raging Bull or Rocky‘s bulkier clunkiness. Like Diana, Girlfight is quick, light on its feet, ever-restless – as coach Hector (Tirelli) says, “Nothing stays still in the ring.” The camera pays heed, roving to capture the feel of the streets and the gym, pausing only for long, silent reaction-shots of Rodriguez’s face, her fuck-you eyes. Kusama’s faith and trust in her inexperienced lead pay dividends – great to see director and actor operating on each other’s wavelength, tuned to their material’s bam-bam-bam rhythms.

In ring-speak Girlfight is ‘all business’ : a straightforward story, economically told, and if some of the plot’s convolutions tend towards melodrama (Diana ends up having to fight her boyfriend in an amateur championship) they avoid the more dangerous traps of sentimentality, predictability and heavy-handedness. There’s bemusement among older gym-hands that a girl wants to box, but that’s about it – plenty of female fighters ply their trade in the US these days, most famously (notoriously?) Muhammad Ali’s own daughter – and it isn’t really such an enormous deal that Diana turns out as good as her male rivals, even if one ring-announcer can’t resist mentioning her ‘lovely purple shorts.’

This light touch of Kusama allows her to explore tricky themes unobtrusively and effectively. Concerns that this ‘masculine’ pursuit might somehow make Diana less ‘feminine,’ for example, are subtly dealt with: when her boyfriend Adrian (Douglas) mistakes a passer-by for Diana, he turns out to be a bloke – it’s played for laughs, and it works fine, while also suggesting (to him and us) that he’s more preoccupied with his training-partner than he cares to admit. If anything, boxing makes Diana more feminine, more aware of and comfortable with her body, giving her the confidence to deal with problems at home and school, and form a stable relationship with a boy.

All this and a sense of humour too – just listen how much amused indignance Rodriguez manages to pack into the single syllable of “No!”, her inevitable response to hostile questions from her dad (Calderon), brother, and romance-oriented best-friend Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra). While Kusama’s script is largely rock-solid on teen dialogue and characterisation, she does trip up when Diana informs Marisol about 1) boxing and 2) Adrian. Surely she’d mention the boyfriend first and then casually tell how she’d met him in the gym. In the movie, Marisol is amazed that Diana’s training to box, until she hears about the extra-curricular stuff and it all clicks.

A minor quibble – more serious error is casting John Sayles (one of the producers, along with his partner Maggie Renzi) as Diana’s chemistry teacher. He gets some key lines, defining ‘heat’ as “energy possessed by molecules because of their motion“, but his in-jokey presence sits uneasily with what’s otherwise a commendably raw, authentic, thoroughly believable picture – the approach typified by Tirelli’s fine, understated performance as Hector.

A different problem is Kusama’s occasionally over-fast cutting during the boxing sequences – it’s like a Michael Jackson video where you never get a long enough look to see whether he’s a great dancer, or if it’s all in the editing: 2000’s other underappreciated boxing picture, Play It To The Bone, showed the advantages of longer takes. Kusama gets everything else pretty much spot on – not least the audaciously simple ending, which arrives, slightly unexpectedly, at exactly the right moment: a killer punch from out of the blue.

30th June, 2001
(seen 26-jun-01, Arc, Stockton)

by Neil Young
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