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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Girlfight

Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli
Director: Karyn Kusama
Rated: NR
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genres: Drama, Sports

*Also starring: Santiago Douglas, Ray Santiago, Elisa Bocanegra, John Sayles, Shannon Williams, Paul Calderon

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

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 entertaining manner.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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