Every boxer knows that fighting is a mental showdown as well as a physical one — that psyching up and psyching out are important skills in the ring. Michelle Rodriguez, the incandescent, dark eyed newcomer who stars in Girlfight, doesn’t so much face the camera as stare it down; she?s got a knockout puss, fierce and dignified. As Diana, an angry teenager from a bleak Brooklyn housing project who sculpts a new definition of herself as a young woman with a future when she puts on gloves and takes up boxing, Rodriguez moves with the kind of natural economy of strength an athlete — or actress — has either got, or she ain’t.
That Rodriguez was neither before first time feature writer director Karyn Kusama found her in an open casting call means nothing. (The star’s grueling preproduction training regime has become part of the movie’s backstage lore — as is the fact that ”Girlfight” was a multi award winning hit at Sundance this year.) Rodriguez is so surely, so naturally the gravitational center of this small, well fought coming of age story that her focus and seriousness make the drama look bigger than it might otherwise have been.
Diana trains in a bare bones gym under the tutelage of a seasoned trainer (Jaime Tirelli) confident enough in his manhood to take on a girl in what was previously an all male milieu. Her sensitive younger brother, unwillingly sent off to boxing lessons by their macho, volatile father (Paul Calderon) in hopes of toughening the kid up, is happy to secretly slip his sister his gym money. And as her discipline catches up with her raw talent, Diana’s womanly, sexual self emerges, too, and she falls in love with handsome Adrian (Santiago Douglas), another young boxer.
”Girlfight” doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls of first time storytelling: a bout in the ring between Diana and Adrian strains credulity about gender blind sporting matches, and her relationships with her family are fraught with excessive tensions and secrets. But Kusama, who, along with many on the project, developed an indie aesthetic through her work with John Sayles (he’s an executive producer here), shows a clear, personal filmmaking style — naturalistic, sparely decorated — and a respect for her characters’ weaknesses as well as their moments of athletic beauty. While Rodriguez punches through the indie clutter to announce herself as a superb new movie talent, so Kusama scores big points in her first main event.