Karyn Kusama's _Girlfight_ quite literally hits theatres with the
formidable force of enthusiastic reviews and strong Sundance audience
buzz behind it. But as is the case with a number of film festival
favorites, the film's impact in a traditional cineplex setting, while
potent, doesn't quite bowl one over. However, one thing about the film
plays explosively in any viewing context--the blazing performance by
newcomer Michelle Rodriguez.
_Girlfight_ would be unthinkable without Rodriguez as Diana Guzman, a
Brooklyn teen whose hot temper often gets her in trouble at school.
Diana inadvertently finds an outlet for her aggression when running a
simple errand for her father (Paul Calderon) at the gym where her younger
brother (Ray Santiago) takes boxing lessons. Seeing this as a way to
gain respect from others--but, most importantly, herself--Diana starts
taking lessons from her brother's coach Hector (Jaime Tirelli) without
her always-disapproving father's awareness.
Kusama's story of empowerment and self-actualization follows a familiar
narrative trajectory. Diana's new confidence gives her the courage to
confront long-simmering issues with her father. Diana meets and falls
for talented fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas), which plants the
seeds for an easily foreseeable climax.
The audience may know exactly where _Girlfight_ is going, yet the film
is still compelling, due in no small part to the grit Kusama brings to
the picture. The locations and the largely unfamiliar (only Calderon, a
bit player in _Pulp_Fiction_, is recognizable) faces add immeasurably to
the authenticity of the piece. It also helps that the actors have the
chops to make the contrived convincing.
Kusama's most impressive accomplishment is the character of Diana and
her believable transition from uncontrollable, disrespectful kid to
disciplined young woman. Especially realistic is how fairly
unspectacular of a boxer she becomes, underscoring that it's not so much
the physical ability Diana gains but the mental adjustment. A standard
Hollywood production would lose sight of that in favor of flash and
completely change her into an invincible superwoman; Kusama remembers
this is amateur boxing after all, and Diana becomes a capable, competent
fighter whose full potential has yet to be realized.
The same can't exactly be said about the Rodriguez, who is simply
astounding in this, her professional acting debut. Rodriguez doesn't
ever downplay Diana's harsher side, but her natural magnetism instantly
hooks the viewer, and as Diana subtly oftens and grows to care more about
herself, so does the audience about her. It's an amazingly fluid,
complex performance, and if _Girlfight_ is just the beginning for
Rodriguez, there will be no stopping this luminous talent.