“I don’t need any help.” Called into her high school counselor’s office for fighting in the girls’ room, Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is resolute, surly and stoic. And why should she trust this lady anyway, even if she is nice and says she’s concerned? Diana lives in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects, in a small apartment with her father Sandro (Paul Calderon) and brother Tiny (Ray Santiago). This environment is bleak: Sandro is abusive more specifically, he abused Diana and Tiny’s late mother, and in watching this violence, the kids have responded differently: Tiny rejects violence and Diana has embraced it, though she has no means to use it effectively, no recognizable threat to pose, no context in which her violence makes sense, except as deviance or pathology. School comprises teachers who have long ago become bored and frustrated with their work, and students who see no possibility for change in their futures, and so, they compete for the scant turf and reputation they can see in front of them.
Filled with rage and desire, without obvious options or outlets, Diana is drifting or more accurately, slamming up against locker doors and bathroom walls until one night Sancho sends her to retrieve Tiny at the local gym, where he’s taking boxing lessons. Here, in this dimly lit and sweat-smelly space, Diana whose emotional complexities are stunningly embodied by newcomer Rodriguez finds structure and focus. Here, she finds a way to express her rage and, eventually, be rewarded and admired. As you might imagine, the road to this respect is hardly easy for a girl. And this is the strength of Karyn Kusama’s debut feature, that it takes you along this road with Diana slowly and carefully, showing you her body her character, her hope, her possibility as she builds it, with bruises and setbacks along the way.
One early supporter in this process is Hector (Jaime Tirelli), who agrees to train Diana, as long as she pays the regular fees (which she does by stealing from her father, and then by using Tiny’s fee money, as he’s glad to give up boxing) and dedicates herself to the art. The film presents Hector as a second father for Diana, one who is not opprobrious but encouraging. Girlfight juxtaposes scenes at home where Diana faces off with Sandro and scenes at the gym, where Hector cultivates her talent and drive. If this were a more standard boy’s story, the images showing Diana’s development as a boxer might not seem so powerful: we have seen, afer all, any number of male boxers training, hurling punches at heavy bags, jumping rope, putting in their mouth-guards before launching themselves from their corners. And we’ve seen male boxers in actual matches, lurching forward or dancing back in slow motion, blood spurting and perspiration spraying, light glinting off their damp arms and casting shadows across their swelling eyes. But all these familiar images look different when you see a girl “in action.” Initially tentative, as everyone has always told her not to fight, Diana evolves into a hard-bodied fighter, practicing on the punching bag, running and doing push-ups, and eventually taking on her sparring partners with real eagerness.
Diana’s primary partner in multiple senses is Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a gifted boxer and very pretty young man who catches her eye early in the film. She watches from across the gym as Adrian trains, and then again as his beautiful girlfriend comes by to kiss him across the ropes. Ping! This romantic plotline complicates Diana’s development, and for the most part, works well enough. Without a woman in her life save for the high school counselor who shows up only for that early “you have to behave” scene, Diana takes older men as her only models: her father, Hector, and her teacher (John Sayles) all offer her prescriptions by way of counterexamples (as compassionate and strong as Hector is, he tells her straight-up, that he’s working in this dingy gym because he did what most fighters do: he lost). Adrian is a new wrinkle in her understanding of men, someone for whom she feels sexual desire but also someone with whom she competes, someone she wants to have and someone she wants to be.
Though such complex desires often come up in boxing movies (or most other male homosocial community and activity movies), they can rarely be voiced or acted on. With a girl fighting a boy, the representation of the innate intimacy of boxing is less anxious-making. And Girlfight makes the most of this opportunity, eventually to its detriment. The early scenes where Diana and Adrian spar create a smart mix of violence and romance, agitation and longing: pressed up against him in the ring, Diana says what she’s unable to say outside it, “I love you. I really do.” Such expression of sentiment is entirely inappropriate, of course, and it underlines Diana’s out-of-placeness in this new culture (boxing) and also her near-instinctual understanding of what’s at stake in it. Boxing is about intimacy and love, at some level. Certainly, the sport’s familiar fuck-you posturing has to do with maintaining a victor’s aggression and survivalist drive, but it also obscures (at least on the surface) the necessary mutual admiration, desire, eroticism, and a love of bodies that undergirds boxing, as a concept, a social order, and a culturally condoned manifestation of masculine violence.
Still, the climactic plot point that depends on Diana and Adrian’s competition is plainly weak: because some fighters have too conveniently dropped out of a championship bout, Diana must box Adrian. Even aside from the trumped-upness of the romantic partners punching each other, the question of how she’s progressed so quickly to be on his level is not answered. But if this circumstance makes no narrative sense, it does make visual, metaphorical, and emotional sense. The last fight scene shot in conventional slow motion makes clear what is going on here: it is, as Kusama describes it, a “love scene.” And because of that, it is remarkably honest about boxing, its mediations of class and race in a racist and classist culture, its celebration of violence in a culture that pretends to abhor it, and perhaps most importantly, its possibilities for making and comprehending identities in a culture that would deny them to exactly these characters.