The Cinderella story of this year's Sundance Festival would have to be "Girlfight", which literally came out of nowhere to capture the hearts of audiences and critics. In addition to earning the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Competition and landing its first-time director Karyn Kusama a Directing Award for Dramatic Competition, "Girlfight" became the subject of an intense bidding war between Artisan Entertainment, Fine Line Features, and the Screen Gems division of Sony Pictures, which ultimately secured the distribution deal. Now, nearly half a year later, mainstream audiences can finally get a taste of the emotional wallop delivered by this enthralling coming-of-age story.
The 'girl' in "Girlfight" is the ill-tempered Diana Guzman (newcomer Michelle Rodriguez), a high school senior on the verge of being expelled due to her tendency to get into fights. Diana has a big chip on her shoulder, which is not surprising since nobody seems to give a damn about her. At school, she has few friends, as she is ostracized by the other girls for her rough-around-the-edges demeanor. At her home in a tough New York neighborhood, her mother is long-dead, and her indifferent father (Paul Calderon of "Out of Sight") offers her little in the way of emotional support or encouragement. Unfortunately, these circumstances only further exacerbate isolation of this angry young woman, hastening her progress down a path of self-destruction.
However, Diana is opened to new possibilities when she makes a chance stop at the Brooklyn Athletic Club, where her brother is being trained to box by one of the coaches, Hector (Jaime Tirelli of "City of Hope"). Her interest piqued, she manages to convince Hector to teach her how to box, as long as she can pay him $10 per lesson. And though she finds her initial sessions difficult and discouraging, Diana soon finds direction and balance in her life through boxing, as it offers an outlet for her pent-up hostility and a means for her to develop self-discipline. In addition, she finds unexpected companionship when he catches the eye of fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas), who aspires to leave the 'hood by fighting in the pros. Unfortunately, her involvement in the sport begins to strain her relationships on the home front, both with her brother, who feels belittled by her big sister's involvement, and her father, who is unaware of his daughter's new hobby... or how she is paying for it.
At first glance, "Girlfight" seems to be a feminized version of "Rocky" or "Raging Bull", with female empowerment substituting for the 'underdog winning the day'. And it certainly is true that "Girlfight" follows the play-book of any sports movie, depicting the protagonist's long and difficult climb to the 'big fight', some difficult decisions being made, and some romance being thrown in for good measure.
However, instead of telegraphing every triumph and upset, director Karyn Kusama puts the focus of her story on Diana, making "Girlfight" more of a character study about the self-realization of a bitter young woman, making a stand in a world that seems to have no use for the likes of her. As a result, audience expectations in "Girlfight" are up-ended on more than one occasion, as Kusama chooses to stay true to her characters rather than settle for the traditional outcomes rampant in films of this genre. This approach isn't surprising, since the script draws on much of Kusama's own experience as an amateur boxer. In addition, as a filmmaker, Kusama was mentored by legendary indie auteur John Sayles ("Lone Star"), who not only exec-produced "Girlfight", but also has a cameo as Diana's science teacher.
Complementing Kusama's introspective script is the outstanding performance delivered by Rodriguez, who is able to convey the hardened resolve and fiery disposition of her character by merely batting her eyes at the camera. The camera seems to like Rodriguez, and it is not surprising that Kusama takes advantage of her lead actress' impressive screen presence with numerous close-ups. It is also difficult to imagine anyone else taking on the lead role, as Rodriguez's own earnest qualities and intensity help underscore the unbridled ambition of the character she plays, making her the unmistakable and unforgettable emotional center of the film.
As director, Kusama uses the 'indie' trappings of the film to her advantage to accentuate the verisimiltude of the dark and dirty world that Diana inhabits. The gritty cinematography and production values convey the overwhelming bleakness in which Diana finds herself, while credibly setting the stage for Diana's transformation. As her skill as a boxer and her self-confidence grow under the tutelage of Hector, the cinematography takes on a more graceful and dreamlike approach, counterpointing the in-ring action with ethereal orchestrations, illustrating how the violence in a bout becomes the means for Diana to transcend the bleakness of the world outside the ring.
I wouldn't be surprised if the names Karyn Kusama and Michelle Rodriguez come up more than once when year-end award nominations are announced in the next few months. From its debut at Sundance at the beginning of the year, to its more recent screenings at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, "Girlfight" has rightfully earned numerous accolades and audience approval. "Girlfight" may not be pretty, or entirely original, but it certainly delivers a knockdown emotional wallop, primarily on the strength of its central character, and the gifted actress who plays her.