“T-Rex” involvingly charts the path of a teenager from hard-luck Flint, Mich., to becoming the very first Olympics gold medalist in women’s boxing. This first feature from co-helmers Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari has been a crowdpleaser at festivals (it just won both a special jury prize and the audience award at San Francisco), and should have a bright future primarily in broadcast exposure.
Claressa Shields, aka T-Rex or Ressa, is a 16-year-old when we first meet her, and the first distaff boxing protegee of local coach Jason Crutchfield, whose own promising boxing career ended when he quit to take care of ill parents. (He trains kids for free, day-jobbing as an electrician.) When she started at age 11, he “didn’t agree with female boxing,” but her evident talent and determination won him over. Now they’ve got their eye on qualifying for Team USA in the first-ever women’s boxing competition at the 2012 Olympics.
Like the fictive figure Hilary Swank played in “Million Dollar Baby,” Shields has had a rough upbringing, and hopes to use her boxing career to benefit family members who aren’t necessarily all that willing or grateful. She and her little sister live with a highly problematic mother and the latter’s “pervert” boyfriend (that epithet is given no further explanation). Their father spent much of their childhoods in prison, and has now remarried. While we don’t get all that much insight into what looks like a very messy set of domestic circumstances (in the economically depressed town whose plight was famously captured a quarter-century ago in Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me”), it’s clear that for this protagonist, boxing is a healthy channel for pent-up emotions.
But of course, she’s also an exceptionally talented athlete. Though there’s a moment when it seems she may not qualify after all, she does make it past trial fights in China to the U.S. team and to the Summer Olympics in London. But Jason’s inability to accompany her to the former engagement (for lack of funds) has driven a wedge between them. Plus, the glare of media attention and what he’s admiringly called her “true confidence” have inflated an already healthy ego; coach and sparrer have words, with Ressa not always a wholly sympathetic figure here. (On the other hand, her “I’m a celebrity” attitude would scarcely raise an eyebrow coming from a male boxer.)
Post-London triumph, the pic’s last act finds that realizing her life’s dream at age 17 is a mixed bag. “Now that the dream came true, I don’t know what to dream about,” Shields says. The lucrative endorsement deals that greet many Olympics winners don’t materialize for an African-American woman in a traditionally male sport who’s advised to stop telling the media, “I love beating people up.” And tensions with mentor Crutchfield (escaping the bad home environment, she’s now living under his family roof) escalate as he strenuously objects to her seeing a boy who’s also a sparring partner, saying, “There is no in-the-gym dating.” (Though from what we see, this is a much more mutually respectful relationship that most she’s seen in her life, and probably should be encouraged.)
Though “T-Rex” leaves some questions unaddressed, and ends with little resolution to protag’s various challenges, it’s compelling throughout. Packaging is savvy, with helmers’ lensing, editorial momentum and an urgent string-based score all significant plusses.