Making a film about sports can be a tricky proposition. Too many sports movies rely on the overwrought "against all odds" approach to filmmaking evident in films like the Rocky series, or a movie as recent as The Replacements. Most sports films also tend to skim over the issues of mental fortitude and emotional character neccesitites of the skilled athlete favoring instead a dominant physicality and an upbeat "win one for the Gipper" attitude that builds to the inevitable big-game ending. The more subtle approach to the genre, however one that uses sports as a metaphor to create a backdrop for human drama places greater emphasis on the complexities and interior make-up of the individual viewed within a sports environment. Inspired by films like John Huston's Fat City and Robert Wise's The Set-Up, writer/director Karyn Kusama wanted to explore the nature of human emotions and their subtext in her sports film Girlfight, one of the best-kept secrets of 2000 and a film festival favorite. Kusama's goal was to make a coming-of-age film using the environment of boxing from a real-life perspective, taking pains, as she states, "to avoid creating a narrative in which there was a clear-cut ending or any triumph that was larger than life." To give the film a fresh approach, Kusama uses a gender-reversal slant on the traditionally male sports-film genre by creating a female protagonist who strives to compete in the very masculine world of inner-city boxing.
Girlfight stars newcomer Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman, a Brooklyn high school girl with an attitude, a hot temper, and flashes of violent behavior. Diana lives with her abusive father Sandro (Paul Calderon) and her soft-spoken brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) in a traditional macho Latino household. The tension in their claustrophobic projects' apartment is palpable, with a lack of the feminine influence that disappeared with Diana's mother's death. Sandro pays for Tiny to take boxing lessons at the local gym, expecting his son to display the masculine traits Sandro so highly values. From Diana, Sandro expects little beyond obedience and obsequiousness. That these children are a disappointment to their father is obvious in their own version of role reversal, Tiny is a gentle, passive, art-loving boy while Diana seethes with resentment and pent-up aggression. Diana also is a budding modern young woman, completely beyond the understanding of her narrow-minded father, who quips "Would it kill you to wear a skirt once in a while?" But when Diana visits the gym where her brother trains, something inside her shifts here is a world where physical aggression is encouraged and can be controlled. She persuades Tiny's trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli) to train her as well, and before long she transforms herself into a powerful, self-confident boxer. The gym becomes her home and Hector a surrogate father, someone who gives her the support and encouragement Sandro is unable to offer. A fellow boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), becomes her boyfriend, and the two offer each other solace from the stark reality of their poverty-stricken surroundings. When Diana and Adrian face their final opponents for an amateur competition, they must put their inner resolve as well as their relationship to the test.
The plot outline of Girlfight could make a potential viewer think it is no different than other "underdog makes good" sports films. But Girlfight is a knockout on several levels, starting with a remarkable performance by Rodriguez, whose powerful screen presence is breathtaking. Rodriguez gives Diana a silent and tangible depth making her someone from whom a direct look or a sideways glance speaks more forcefully than pages of dialogue. In fact, much of the film was pared down from the script when it became evident that Rodriquez could say so much in very little screen time. The simplicity and completely natural cadence and tone of the film's sparse dialogue also adds to the movie's believability, as well as the authentic sets and locations that lend the film a documentary feel. The fight scenes are gritty and beautiful as well as realistic. Most notably, the superb camera work by cinematographer Patrick Cady, with its rich color saturation and exquisite attention to detail, makes the film a visual feast. Girlfight is beautifully rendered, satisfying cinema that never takes the easy way out. Anger, love, yearning, desire Kusama articulately and self-confidently presents these emotions with respect for both her characters and her audience. She also permeates her film with genuine emotional muscle, elevating it beyond sports-film clichés. It's not very often that films this small are this outstanding.
Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Girlfight offers an anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1) with crystal-clear images of the film's intense color schemes and rich atmospheric detail both essential to the remarkable quality of the film while the digitally mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio conveys Theodore Shapiro's very precise and moving soundtrack. In her intelligent and informative audio commentary, Kusama recounts the challenges of the indie filmmaking process, the constant need to clarify and simplify scenes and images, and the pain of letting go while keeping true to her vision of "finding a new way of looking at women in film." Also includes "making of" featurette and theatrical trailers. Keep-case.