2000, R, 110 min. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Starring Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli, Paul Calderon, Santiago Douglas, Ray Santiago.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000

In this time of the curious resurgence of the boxing movie, it's easy to see why Girlfight has risen to the top of the heap. Nicely executed and extremely likable, Girlfight is a rousing, girl-positive, indie success story whose dynamic rhythms deliver a connecting punch. The movie has an integrity of feeling and spirit that carries it through its often creaky plot developments and untrained acting. Girlfight seethes with intensity, due in large measure to the powerful screen presence of newcomer Michelle Rodriguez in the lead role of Diana Guzman. The film won two top honors when it premiered in January at Sundance (Grand Jury prize and Best Directing award for Karyn Kusama, also a newcomer, who wrote the script as well), but the real award belongs to Rodriguez for best acting (and boxing) debut. The movie begins and ends on Rodriguez's face, the glowering face of a young Latina -- unafraid, hopeful, fierce, and peaceful -- a modern incarnation of her mythological namesake Diana. After getting into a few too many scrapes in high school, Diana turns to boxing as a means of channeling her anger and hostility. Her problems are typical boxing-movie scenarios: impoverished life in the housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn; lack of sufficient parental affection; and resentment of “girly girls,” who primp and polish and snag all the boys. Her brother Tiny (Santiago) is made to box at the gym, even though he dreams of becoming an artist. So Diana takes lessons in secret and wins the admiration of her coach Hector (Tirelli), who then champions the idea of gender-blind amateur bouts. The climactic match pits Diana against her would-be beau Adrian (Douglas), another amateur boxer looking to turn pro. Caught in a no-win situation, Adrian's ardor cools, and Diana's crisis comes to a head. Girlfight can almost be evenly divided into two halves: The first deals with Diana's discovery of self through boxing; the second half focuses on Diana's bumpy romance with Adrian, and is handled in fairly conventional terms that do not equal the originality of the first half. “Muscles and marriage” can go together is the message Girlfight seems to go out of its way to express. The second half seems to drag, a feeling accentuated by some uneven performances. The film also makes it seem as though female boxing is a wholly original thing, whereas, if not quite commonplace, neither is it any big news. This may be a cultural development that occurred during the film's incubation period, a period which also saw director John Sayles, his longtime producers Maggie Renzi and Sarah Green, and the Independent Film Channel come aboard as producers. Girlfight is a compellingly watchable story with a charismatic new find in its starring role. Ultimately, it may not be all that it can be, but it's so much more than anyone outside this creative team ever imagined.

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Girlfight, Karyn Kusama, Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli, Paul Calderon, Santiago Douglas, Ray Santiago

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