- Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman
- Jaime Tirelli as Hector Soto
- Paul Calderón as Sandro Guzman
- Santiago Douglas as Adrian
- Ray Santiago as Tiny Guzman
A blisteringly powerful but also emotionally stirring debut from writer/ director Karyn Kusama, Girlfight also features the ferocious debut performance from Michelle Rodriguez. Avoiding the pitfalls of the many movies in the sports drama genre, Kusama crafts a journey of self-worth and the taking of control of life with energy and vigour.
Diana Guzman is an angry teenager in her last year of high school. Never far away from a physical or verbal fight, she is just shy of getting expelled from school. Not that she cares anyway, she feels worthless enough as it is. With an abusive father always on her back and the scars left by her mother’s death, Diana has already been put through enough pain in her young years. Living in the Brooklyn projects, she feels like an outsider with nothing in the way of opportunities. That is until she stumbles into a gym where her younger brother Tiny is training as a boxer. It is here that something within her clicks as she witnesses training for the harsh and male-dominated sport . At first, trainer Hector Soto is unconvinced that she can make it training as a boxer. Yet Diana won’t give up, so he gives her a shot, despite his resistance. Diana sees boxing as a way to channel her aggression and also harness it. Little by little as she pushes herself under Hector’s training, she begins to gain his respect, despite his initial reluctance to train her because she is a girl. She also catches the eye of fellow boxer Adrian, and tentatively they begin a relationship. Yet this new-found happiness is jeopardized when Diana and Adrian are selected to fight in a gender blind match.
With a keen eye for the heart of the story and a visionary working of the way the movie is shot, Karyn Kusama imbues Girlfight with heaps of personal feeling and kinetic understanding. She shoots boxing with a gritty determination that makes the sport look incredibly brutal but also highly rewarding for those willing to give it their all. At one point, the camera is rigged to the actors as they box, and as an audience we can also feel every blow from the left hooks and jabs from the participators. This technique is used excellently to convey the sheer physicality of the sport and also Diana’s gradual emergence as a talented opponent. Girlfight may have boxing at the centre, but it is way more than just a film about the sport. It examines the outsider wanting to harness their angst in an arena that is not thought of as right for them. More impressively is how Girlfight handles the romance between Diana and Adrian. Instead of feeling tacked on just for the sake of it, the relationship allows Diana to open up as a person about the burden of pain she has been carrying on her young shoulders for years. A snappy soundtrack of frenetic guitars and finger clicks is remarkably done and builds like Diana to a powerful finish.
In what was her debut role, Michelle Rodriguez radiates fury, pain and attitude as a girl wanting to prove people wrong. Rodriguez brings such an intensity to the part with her transfixing eyes and fiery temper making Diana an outsider protagonist you want to succeed. It truly is a compelling performance of physicality, bruised determination and growing inspiration that lingers in the mind for a long time after seeing it. Jaime Tirelli brings a certain worn-out charisma to trainer Hector, who starts out doubting the troubled Diana’s abilities but who comes to see her burgeoning talent that he helps by pushing her. Paul Calderón is suitably challenging as Diana’s abusive father, who berates her for her behaviour but isn’t exactly a saint himself. Santiago Douglas has excellent chemistry with Michelle Rodriguez as fellow boxer Adrian, who finds their relationship tested by the match between them. Ray Santiago is great as Tiny, Diana’s brother who wants nothing to do with boxing, but takes lessons because of his father’s discipline.
A gritty, hard-edged but very hopeful sports drama emerges from Girlfight as it explores someone who so little is expected of taking on the adversity.