About ten years ago a friend told me that he had started
seeing a cognitive psychotherapist about his problem with
anxiety. Since psychologists are not allowed to prescribe
drugs, I figured he must be taking the talking cure. To my
amazement and certainly to his, the doc advised him to join
Gleason's gym near the Brooklyn Bridge in our home
borough. I couldn't believe my ears. Is this what cognitive
therapy was all about? Maybe this was the way patients
were supposed to have their heads shrunk? Have their
grandiosity beaten down to size? Get their aggressions out?
I wish he didn't switch doctors because I'd love to have given
an ear to the way things turned out at Gleason's, but
fortunately I experienced the next best thing by seeing the
movie "Girlfight." "Girlfight" also takes place in Brooklyn,
though not in one of the lovelier parts of that great borough.
Writer-director Karyn Kusama has the camera trained on the
Red Hook neighborhood that juts out a bit on the map, an
area considered tough perhaps because it's the locale of
several city projects and used to be the scene of Saturday
night violence. "Girlfight" is about an 18-year-old woman
who, like my anxiety-ridden friend, has problems, though she-
-unlike my pal--is indeed able to work them out in the boxing
ring! How is this possible? Not because she had her
aggressions knocked out of her. Quite the contrary. And not
because she was cut down to size by skilled opponents.
Rather, she "found" herself. Boxing was her thing, her true
identity. Every high-school guidance counselor believes that
if the kids in their schools could all find the thing they love to
do, what they were really good at, they would be upstanding,
happy citizens. There's quite a bit of truth to this, as the
movie skillfully--make that beautifully--illustrates.
"Girlfight" spotlights the wonderfully talented Michelle
Rodriguez in her debut role in a film that won Ms. Kusama
the Best Director's award at the Sundance Film Festival this
year and garnered the Grand Jury Prize for the movie itself.
The picture takes us into the mind of a troubled and
troublesome adolescent, Diana, whose mother's suicide eight
years previous did not help much and whose father, Sandro
(Paul Calderon), seems decent enough and yet lacking in
common sense. When Diana gets into trouble by picking a
school fight for the third time in her senior year, she is
warned that the next time, expulsion will be the name of the
game. (Contrary to what the principal says, though,
expulsion is not an option in New York until a kid is 21 years
of age.) One day she watches her brother Tiny (Ray
Santiago) getting punched on in the neighborhood boxing ring
and she retaliates by giving the perp a punch in the nose.
>From that moment, amateur boxing becomes her new love.
She trains vigorously with the Panamanian-American on duty,
Hector (Jaime Tirelli), and learns that with the exercise of
discipline and the outpouring of enough sweat, you have at
least a fighting chance of success--even if your opponents in
the ring are almost all young men.
Kusama does an exquisite job of bringing out the best in
her young performer. At the very beginning of the movie she
knocks off the best shot of the picture, a long close-up gaze
at the face of the distressed Diana whose sullen look could
stop a clock. Throughout the movie, Kusama keeps the
soundtrack gloriously limited. When the background music
does come in, boy is it dramatic! Spanish guitar combining
with Latin rhythms and a flamenco beat gives way to a
contained score alternating a mood of romance with that of
dissonance. Kusama captures the feel of the community:
the men playing cards for moderate stakes, a motley
assortment of hangers on and trainers in the gym from the
trainers to the promoters to the commissioner to the referees.
Posters abound such as "It's not the size of the dog in the
fight--it's the amount of fight in the dog." In one humorous
scene a referees introduces a major amateur bout with his
embarrassing rendition of the National Anthem.
Jaime Tirelli and Michelle Rodriguez make a terrific and
thoroughly believable team as the dedicated instructor and
committed learner while Santiago Douglas turns in a
respectable role as Diana's romantic interest--a young man
whom she ultimately must fight in the ring. The film is adept
at fashioning contrasts, the most surprising being that in the
same Latino family Diana is the macho character while her
brother Tiny is more feminine, hoping to go to college to learn
to be an artist. What is especially heartwarming (not to take
away from the laugh-out-loud pictures like "American Pie" and
"Road Trip" and "Loser") is that "Girlfight" tells us what
teenage angst is really like and does so in a thoroughly
Copyright © 2000 Harvey Karten