Love hurts

Keep your eye on the tiger?

Keep your eye on the tiger?

Rated 3.0

Brooklyn high school senior Diana Guzman (played with young-Brando intensity by Michelle Rodriguez) is the personification of smolder. We first see her in Karyn Kusama’s urban drama Girlfight as she leans against a wall of hall lockers, her chin resting on her chest. The camera slowly moves through bustling students and toward the cornrows on Diana’s scalp. Diana slowly raises her face to the lens. Her eyes partially roll into their top lids. Her glare, one of the most memorable on-film looks since Malcolm McDowell’s twisted smirk in A Clockwork Orange, reeks of attitude and the nasty bite of a stiff left jab.

Diana has spent her youth lashing out at the world. Her father (Paul Calderon) raised her and younger brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) after he was a major factor in their mother’s suicide. Diana wears her frigid relationship with her dad and self-destructive anger on her sleeve. She recklessly flirts with disaster and yearns to love and be loved. Soon she’s going to attempt to literally box her way from juvenile head case to empowered young woman.

Girlfight is a teenage love story about voluntary change set amid the blood, sweat and tears of the ring, the violence and squalor of inner-city streets and the emotional litter of a dysfunctional home life. It is about confronting opponents and physical obstacles, along with those inner demons and defects that shaped our past that—if left unattended—will shape our future.

Diana is an at-risk student without a safety net or a promising tomorrow. She has a hair-trigger temper, settles personal scores with her fists and does not care about repercussions. While on an errand for her father, she visits the local athletic club where her scrawny, reluctant brother is being trained to box. She feels compelled to channel her aggression into boxing and solicits the aid of Tiny’s trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli). Hector agrees to train her, but he refuses to let her actually compete in the ring.

Tiny is upset that his sister has encroached into traditionally all-male territory. He then empathizes with her passion and hard work and helps keep her secret from their father. Diana’s determination also impresses Hector. He initiates gender-blind matches at the club as Diana’s friendship with featherweight male fighter Adrian (Santiago Douglas, bearing the same name as Rocky’s girlfriend) escalates into romance. The two sweethearts have a falling out when Adrian continues to date a trophy girlfriend who’s attracted by the possible payoffs of professional boxing. Soon, they must fight each other in a final round of amateur competition.

The strength of this Romeo and gym-rat story is Rodriguez’s performance. She is a vivid powder keg of repressed and resurrected dreams and desires. The naturalistic acting from the entire cast, and the film’s settings and atmosphere (the best in a fight picture since John Huston’s Fat City) are also impressive. The Brooklyn projects, fight clubs and peripheral characters drip with authenticity, and the mix of synthesizer sounds with repeated Flamenco-like classical guitar lines (complemented with hand clapping) help drive the mood swings.

The weakness of Girlfight is its familiar plot and lack of energy and urgency. The film begins lethargically and covers the terrain of many other fight films. Last year’s documentary On the Ropes—the story of three aspiring boxers, two men and one woman, working out of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy Boxing Center—won an Oscar nomination for covering much of the same ground.

Boxing has received several black eyes over recent years for its more dark, carnival elements. Girlfight reminds us that it has provided a source of escape for many dead-end kids. It also conveys, credibly, Diana’s willingness to be more emotionally open and vulnerable as her physical strength increases. As a whole, though, it just doesn’t pack the same urgent wallop that its main character packs.