"Girlfight" knocks you on your backside from its very first image -- a powerful close-up of the pure fury in the eyes of its heroine, a dangerous 15-year-old girl from the projects with a propensity for between-class brawls at her high school.
Exploding with her intense focus and attitude, the shot is like something from "Raging Bull," and that's no coincidence. The film is about fierce, angry, intelligent Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) finding an outlet for her fire and ire by becoming a boxer -- and I don't mean a woman who punches the heavy bag as a trendy form of exercise. I mean a teenage girl who can get into the amateur ring with men and send them to the mat -- hard.
All temper and fists with no control as the film begins, Diana strong-arms her way into training at a broken-down Brooklyn gym alongside aspiring male boxers. The first female interloping in this sweaty, testosterone world, she's given a supply closet as a makeshift girls' locker room and strives to tune her raw power into precision and stamina with help of a washed-up boxer-turned-coach (Jaime Tirelli) who surprises even himself by believing in her.
Meanwhile at home, she hides her new pursuit from her imposing father (Paul Calderon), whom she despises for having driven her mother to suicide with frequent beatings when she was young. (Yes, comeuppance is on her mind.)
An astonishingly adept first film from writer-director Karyn Kusama, "Girlfight" submerges the viewer in Diana's often despairing environment. Barking dogs, car alarms, gunning engines and pounding car stereos create a blanket of background sounds, built to a crescendo by an extraordinary score that combines tensely clapping castanets and kinetic, sonorous classical piano.
The photography is dark and deliberately grainy, reflecting Diana's moody disposition. The fight scenes that come late in the film provoke a physical reaction -- not an empathetic wince at the impact of a well-landed punch (emphasized with perspective shots that white out as boxing glove makes contact with camera), but a psychological reaction that tenses your whole body because you feel the vehement adrenaline coursing through the girl.
Equally compelling is the tenderness she feels in a tentative romance with another boxer. Rodriguez's truly unforgettable performance is a mixture of the rage and indignation that are central to Diana's personality, and the girlishness behind her pouty snarl.
On their first date she twirls her hair around a finger, smiles sweetly and makes eye contact from beneath her down-turned eyelashes. When she gets kissed, she's exudes tenderness and femininity.
When fate places her opposite her boyfriend in the ring, she holds nothing back emotionally or physically, then later feels beaten and defeated for having done so.
Yet this is not a yin-and-yang swapping of character elements -- both parts of her personality coexist in every nuance of this performance.
Breaking clichés in almost every scene, "Girlfight" is not wrapped up in the cinema of it all, making a flashy boxing movie or a touching rites-of-passage movie or a female empowerment movie. It's a film that transcends genre because it's more concerned with character, emotion and self-awareness than it is with the structure of storytelling, which seems to come effortlessly to Kusama.
A fervent, absorbing, near-flawless film experience, as a boxing movie "Girlfight" ranks with "Raging Bull" and kicks "Rocky's" ass. And it's the first movie of 2000 that could even be considered a serious contender for the best picture of the year.
With a heroine who could -- no kidding -- stand her ground against Jake LaMotta or Rocky Balboa, it's going to be hard to beat.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 23rd November 2000
Box Office USA: $0.8M
Distributed by: Screen Gems
Production compaines: Screen Gems, Inc., 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 82 Rotten: 12
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman, Jaime Tirelli as Hector Soto, Paul Calderon as Sandro Guzman, Santiago Douglas as Adrian Sturges, Ray Santiago as Tiny Guzman, Víctor Sierra as Ray Cortez, Elisa Bocanegra as Marisol, Herb Lovelle as Cal, Thomas Barbour as Ira, Shannon Walker Williams as Veronica, Elisa Bocanegra as Marisol
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