Announcing the arrival of a major 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 to 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. Among the competition movies screened so far, “Girlfight” is one of the strongest indie dramas at Sundance this year.
“Girlfight” blends in a most satisfying manner the conventions of several genres, resulting in a coherent picture that is at once a poignant inner-city drama, a rousing sports movie, an emotional family yarn and, above all, a sweet romance. Pic’s love story reworks the Romeo and Juliet saga, here embodied by two Latino youngsters who meet and pursue their relationship in and out of the boxing ring. That the film 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.
Within a few scenes, it’s established that Diana (Rodriguez) is a tough girl with a chip on her shoulder. Neither repeated warnings by the school principal or detention affect her. Unbearably honest, Diana gets involved in fight after fight at school, risking expulsion. Early on, she interferes in an argument between her chubby classmate Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra) and the attractive Veronica (Shannon Walker Williams), who are fighting over a boy.
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. Sandro favors younger son Tiny (Ray Santiago) and pushes 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, in which sexual segregation prevails, Diana is perceived and treated not just as an outsider, but as an alien from another planet. Diana’s marginal status reminds one of Sayles’ films, which have often centered on disenfranchised groups or individuals in American society.
The first chapters demonstrate quite vividly what it means to be the only girl in traditionally male territory — Diana is subjected to harassment, ridicule and contempt. Yet from her p.o.v., the gym provides not only shelter but sanctuary; it’s the one place where she can prove her self-worth. Training sessions are conducted by Hector (Jaime Tirelli), a Panamanian immigrant whose tough facade and world-weary philosophy mask his decency. Hector soon becomes Diana’s surrogate father, replacing the biological one in every meaningful way.
The scenes at the gym recall any number of sports pictures — in particular, the “Rocky” series — in which an underdog (in Hollywood pics, often an Italian-American) is instructed by an older, more savvy trainer and gradually acquires not just physical strength and skills, but 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 are clearly experiencing their first true love. The push-pull forces that characterize their romance effectively convey the erotic attraction as well as the fear of getting hurt.
The only segments that feel strained and schematic are those in which Diana and Adrian compete with each other in the ring, and the climactic fight 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 would be embarrassing, but winning wouldn’t exactly look good on his resume. Although this subplot is problematic, the director has established so much credibility and faith in her storytelling that it’s easy to overlook the message-heavy nature of the gym scenes — especially when the finale is emotionally satisfying.
The film inevitably brings to mind the cycle of inner-city black movies that appeared a decade ago — particularly Matty 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’ “Just Another Girl on the IRT,” which made the mistake of featuring an arrogant black heroine who felt superior to those around her. “Girlfight” earns its laurels as a more hopeful, candid and pleasing film than either of those earlier 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, her expressive face reflecting the many moods her character experiences. 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 helps Diana change from a sloppy adolescent to a beautiful, self-respecting woman.