Sounds like a 1970s women-in-prison movie, doesn't it? Nope, it's a great little flick about a female boxer, and Judge Norman Short says it's one of the best movies of 2000. Don't miss his review, or you might find a right hook planted across your jaw.
Prove them wrong.
Those eyes. Those smoldering, angry eyes. The image of those eyes in the first moments of Girlfight became indelibly imprinted in my mind, lingering long after the film was over. Those eyes belong to Michelle Rodriguez, a first-time actress who brought such fire, intensity, and integrity to her role I became fascinated with her. I knew long before the film was over that I'd seen the beginning of something special.
Girlfight came out of nowhere at last year's Sundance to become co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic Competition) and sole winner of the Directing Award (Dramatic Competition). From first-time director Karyn Kusama, Girlfight is an authentic, well-crafted and utterly satisfying debut, a tale about self-actualization and female empowerment in a man's world. It didn't get a very wide distribution in the theaters, but now it is available on a fine DVD from Columbia Pictures and Screen Gems, and if I'd seen it earlier I'd have included it in my top ten list for the year. Check this one out.
Facts of the Case
As you might expect, the film is about a female boxer. Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman, a frustrated high school student with more rage than self-control, a girl at a loss and at war with her world. From the creepy and dangerous New York projects she calls home and the drunken father to the dirty streets she is at odds with everything. After her fourth fight in one semester at school she is told that she has run out of chances: one more fight and she's out. From there she heads off to the local gym, where her father pays for brother Tiny's boxing lessons. She only goes there to deliver the payment, but likes what she sees, and punches out one of the male fighters after he takes a cheap shot at her brother. Later she returns to ask for training, only to be told by Hector (Jaime Tirelli) she can't fight because she's a girl. He'll let her train though, provided she can come up with the money. By various means she comes up with the cash, and begins training, quickly outdistancing her brother, who would rather be an artist anyway.
The second act has only a nominal similarity to Rocky, and is the only way the two films could be compared in any sense. Here is where we see the various scenes of her training, as she progresses from raw power and desire to physical prowess and skill. In the meantime she has hidden her new passion from her father, with the expected blow-up when she is found out. She has also begun a tentative romantic interest with Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a young up-and-comer who is also trying to fight his way out of the projects. One of the film's best lines comes during their first date, when Adrian asks her why she wants to box and she replies, "I didn't make the cheerleading team." Inevitably the film goes on to where Diana gets her chance to fight, and in a twist on the Amateur boxing rules, gets to fight even up against men.
In some ways the story sounds predictable, and it is, but it is done with such authenticity and with such force carried by Michelle Rodriguez that it works. It more than works; I was constantly surprised by the depth of her raw talent, and it seemed that we were watching her grow as an actress just as her character grew as a boxer and a person. The supporting cast is likewise wonderful, but I found it hard to take my eyes of this girl.
Here is one time when low-budget filmmaking and the vision for the film come together into synergy. Because of the lack of money, some very seedy locations were used in and around New York, but they only added to the gritty feel of the surroundings and the truthfulness of the film. Many locations didn't even get set decorations, but were filmed just as run-down as they really were. It seemed like we were seeing a gem cut out of the rough, literally. Likewise the lack of extra takes and coverage may have even helped the film, creating a minimalist approach to the direction that brought a documentary feel, which also worked. Often I wish directors, especially new ones, would restrain their creative urges to get every type of strange angle and unique shot, and just tell us the story. Low-budget filmmaking makes that mandatory as well as desirable.
I also liked the approach to the boxing footage taken by Kusama. Not only do we get the obligatory longer shots of the boxers circling, but often the camera is placed from the boxer's point of view, where the punches fly right at us by flying right at the camera. It doesn't always work, but most of the time it was very effective. Rodriguez again really showed her chops as she managed to look both raw and unskilled early on and tough and polished enough later that you could believe maybe this girl really could keep up with the boys. I came away from the film feeling like I didn't want to get in a fight with her. Ultimately the film would rise or fall on that believability, and I found it very real.
Girlfight is given a very nice and clean 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer for this DVD release. Some grain is evident, revealing its low-budget roots, but otherwise I was impressed with the level of detail. The color palette is typically muted in what is meant to be a gritty and downcast setting, but flesh tones are realistic and bright colors are bright when called for. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn't anything to show off to the neighbors, but it does its job admirably. Surround only come out of hiding during the fights and for the musical score, but the dialogue is clear, sound effects are realistic enough, and there is a high degree of clarity and fidelity.
Though not offered as a special edition, there is still a nice collection of extra content. The leading feature is the commentary track from writer/director Karyn Kusama, who was quite literate and involved as she gave tons of information about the making of the film. It is obvious this was a labor of love, with constant attention to detail. I found it interesting where she seemed to wish she could have done things better or more intricately, and I was glad that she was forced to keep to the minimalist approach. This film didn't need tricks to keep my interest. A brief featurette and the trailer complete the content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Anyone thinking they are going to see a female version of Rocky will be disappointed. Girlfight is both more and less than that. There are basic similarities, but it takes a different direction. The film may not have the gloss of a big-budget Hollywood production, but it more than makes up for it in heart and power.
This film got an R rating for language, but I think it is absolutely perfect material for teenagers, particularly teenage girls. I'm still amazed that films like this get an R but movies with nothing but jiggle and killing people to offer still skate on that PG-13.
As I said above, I think this is one of the top ten films of the year 2000. It may not have deserved an Oscar nod, but I might have picked Michelle Rodriguez for a Best Actress nomination. I have high hopes for what she can do in the future. This disc is worth seeing both for the film and for her acting debut. Give it a try.
I have a lot of sympathy for the little films that turn out so well, so I won't even entertain charges against the makers of Girlfight. Columbia Pictures is likewise acquitted of any charges because of the quality of the disc. Case dismissed.
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