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.
RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)
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