erasing clouds


by dan heaton

Diana Guzman (Michele Rodriguez) strolls down the hallways of school filled with anger and rage. All it takes is one snide comment to set her off on a rampage against a snobbish classmate. Her father drinks and gambles his days away and doesn't pay much attention to her life. Diana lives in the Brooklyn projects of Red Hook, a run-down, brutal place for a young woman to grow up. Little optimism exists in her life, until she decides to become a boxer and discovers love.

Girlfight, the compelling first film from writer/director Karyn Kusama, follows Diana from class to the gym and her training sessions with Hector (Jaime Tirelli). He acts cynically at first because she's a girl, but quickly discovers Diana's spirit and heart. Diana also begins a relationship with Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a handsome fellow boxer with aims at becoming a pro someday. Their tender connection allows her to discover a softer, different side of herself away from the violence of boxing.

The realistic tone of this film is startling for a directorial debut, and it indicates Kusama's refreshing understanding of the characters and their thoughts. The underdog story will invite obvious comparisons to Rocky, and there are several similarities, including the idea that if a people have confidence, they can accomplish anything. That film, however, is much more of a straight crowd-pleaser, with Rocky's "victory" of going the distance occurring in the ring. In Girlfight, Diana's choice to become a boxer is much more daring, and whatever the outcome, she's succeeded simply by making the attempt. While both films are character studies, Kusama brings us much closer to her characters, as we share their emotional moments and family squabbles from a more intimate perspective.

Kusama's directorial approach aligns itself with that of John Sayles (Lone Star, City of Hope), one of the film's executive producers. Sayles directs with a wonderful focus on understanding the thoughts and motivations of his subjects. While his films often contain compelling plots, the details never overwhelm the characters and push them into the background. With this film, Kusama tackles the compelling subject of a woman in the male boxing world, but the personal interaction carries the film. Diana's relationships with Adrian, her father, Hector, and her younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) keep the story moving and interesting.

Michele Rodriguez gives a gritty debut performance that allows us to see inside of Diana's tough exterior. Her eyes often tell the story as they glower with anger towards challengers inside the ring and out. Rodriguez's boxing training helped to add the necessary realism to the story, and it remains realistic because she's not a perfect boxer in the end. Unlike the silly fight scenes of the Rocky sequels, these sequences are quick and exciting, but remain accurate and understandable. With each successive fight, Rodriguez deftly presents subtle changes in Diana's skills and overall demeanor as she gains confidence.

While Rodriguez's performance is the centerpiece of the film, the supporting cast also shines. Jaime Tirelli stands out as Hector, Diana's trainer, who slowly gains confidence in her as he discovers her heart. Hector keeps her focused in the ring and pushes her training to a higher level. In his best scene, Tirelli discusses his own boxing career with an excellent mix of acquired wisdom and yearning for the past. Santiago Douglas also gives a strong performance as Adrian, a talented fighter who finds his mental equal in Diana. While his role could have been one-sided, he adds extra emotion and humanity to his conflicted character.

Girlfight does contain its share of plot conventions, including the final fight (with the expected opponent) and the training sequences. However, Kusama overcomes most of the usual fight-film cliches by focusing on the humanity of the story. Her direction (she won a well-deserved Sundance Director's Award) works very effectively, with only a few missteps along the way. Her emphasis on character places her on an echelon separate from the unfortunate direction of much of Hollywood today.

Issue 3, October 2000 | next article

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