With only one month ahead of us in our 52 Films by Women series, it’s time to start winding things down and catching up with our “Shit, I can’t believe I never wrote about ___” faves. (“I have to do We Need to Talk About Kevin. But wait—that means I’d have to rewatch We Need to Talk About Kevin. During the holidays. Is there enough alcohol in the world?”) So far, my own 52 Films entries have included a little-seen 1950 film about the traumatic aftereffects of rape, a dark sibling rivalry comedy, an LGBT coming-of-age romance, and a lesbian boarding school bit o’ pulp. You know what’s missing? Michelle Rodriguez boxing movie.
Fuck yeah. It’s time to talk about Girlfight.
Girlfight is the first film for both Rodriguez and writer/director Karyn Kusama, whose best-known work to date is the Diablo Cody-penned high school satire Jennifer’s Body. That’s a good film—it certainly deserves the cult following it begun to amass once people began to realize, no, the presence of Megan Fox does not mean it’s stupid. But Girlfight is what put Kusama on the map, and it’s still my favorite thing she’s ever done.
A traditional sports movie with a twist or two up its sleeve, Girlfight stars Rodriguez as Diana Guzman, a teenage tomboy who bristles against society’s expectations of how women “should” behave. She wants to take up boxing, but she knows better than to bring that up to her father, Sandro (Paul Calderon): A man who asks his daughter whether it wouldn’t “kill you to wear a skirt once in a while?” and forces his geeky son (Ray Santiago) to box despite obvious lack of interest because, well, that’s just what men do, is probably never going to pony up the $10 a pop for Diana’s lessons. So Diana, pugnacious and stubborn, goes behind her father’s back and trains with the hard-nosed yet supportive Hector (Jaime Tirelli).
In between sessions, Diana begins to fall for a fellow boxer-in-training. His name is Adrian (Santiago Douglas), as in the (female) love interest in the Rocky movies. (“Adrian? What kind of girly name is that?,” quips Diana’s best friend. You can also hear a character yell “Yo, Adrian!” in the background during one scene. If I were Kusama, I wouldn’t have been able to resist, either.) The connection Kusama draws between Girlfight and Rocky is explicit; aside from the Adrian thing, Girlfight’s final shot is a direct homage to Rocky’s freeze frame ending. But to call Girlfight a “female Rocky” doesn’t give the film its due. Kusama has crafted a movie and a main character both that come out from the shadow of their more famous brethren and stand on their own merits. If anything, the Rocky connection makes Girlfight stand out more as a truly original piece of filmmaking. “You’ve seen this story before,” Kusama tells us. “But you haven’t seen it quite like this.”
In many ways, Girlfight hews to the typical sports movie formula. It has the scrappy underdog, the training montages, the crusty-yet-supportive mentor, the climatic final fight. (The tropes are occasionally subverted: For the last fight, Diana’s brother Tiny puts out a chair for their father, who earlier dismissed Diana’s attempts at boxing as “ridiculous.” He doesn’t show.) What’s different is Diana herself. This is a woman who wants to be taken on her own terms—who wants to prove herself in the ring, who wants to earn respect, and who wants to do that without compromising who she is. And the movie lets her do that. People in her life are constantly giving her shit in big and small ways for either being too “girly” or not “girly” enough. At school, the resident bully responds to a show of Diana’s physical strength by snarking “those hormone treatments really do the job.” Inside the ring, Diana’s gender opens her up to derision that ranges from the needling and unintentional (“And in the lovely purple shorts, clap your hands for Diana Guzman!”) to the outright hostile (“Boys are different from girls. What’s so wrong about saying it? Boys are different from girls. No girl has what it takes to be a boxer.”) She’s too strong. She’s not strong enough. She’s a “psycho” and a “bitch.” And Diana has moments of insecurity. She makes sacrifices. But what shines through is a rock-solid belief in herself and her abilities. The world wants her to change? Fuck that. The world can do the changing.
To wit: Adrian’s in an on-again-off-again relationship with a woman who appears to be Diana’s polar opposite. She wears makeup and nice clothes (Diana is partial to shapeless t-shirts) and is physically affectionate. But to hell with your She’s All That moment. Diana’s not going to take off her metaphorical glasses, put on lipstick and come down the stairs in a dress to prove she’s a “real” woman. Not because those things are bad, but because that’s not who Diana is, and if that’s a dealbreaker for Adrian then he can go screw.
(Diana definitely deals with some ingrained sexism of her own—imitating the aforementioned school bully, she simpers “Let me get made up just perfect so I can suck your dick, which is all I’m good for anyway.” Her best friend tells her to knock it off, but still. It’s far from an admirable characteristic, but it’s hardly one that’s uncommon, and in any case Kusama never tries to set up Diana as some sort of flawless paragon. Judgmental and prone to bouts of anger, she’s more like her father than he would like to admit.)
Diana is played to perfection by Michelle Rodriguez, who has never been better than she is here. You might scoff at that—Rodriguez, like many a (mostly male) action star before her, gets by more on a magnetic badass allure than quote-unquote “real” acting ability. (Hi, Sly Stallone!) People (rightly) like the Fast and Furious franchise for a lot of reasons, but the high-caliber thespian chops of its cast don’t tend to be among them. But Rodriguez has a raw, angry energy here that leaps off the screen. That energy comes because of, not in spite of, the fact that Rodriguez had never worked as an actress before—according to Kusama, she “didn’t even know what a script looked like” and started off her audition by reading the stage directions. “Everyone was hoping we would find an experienced, professional, Latina actress who could still play 18 and be all of the things this character is,” Kusama explains. “In fact, the character demands a sort of unschooled sensibility that often, once actors have been trained, they no longer have.”
It’s that “unschooled sensibility” that makes Rodriguez impossible to look away from. A scene about midway through the film is a particular standout. Sandro discovers his daughter’s boxing and lashes out, telling her “you looked like a loser out there.” She lashes out right back, physically beating her father and confronting him for the role his abuse played in her mother’s suicide: “The only thing you had the heart to love you practically beat into a grave. You just had to push her, didn’t you? Until she’d rather die than answer to you, huh? I could snap your neck right now if I felt like it. I could kill you if I felt like it… How does it feel to see so much of yourself so close?” Diana’s story is one of violence, yes, but also of empowerment: of a woman who takes control of her own life and won’t let anyone—not her father, not her boyfriend—wrest it from her. It’s a powerful message that’s echoed in the film’s final shot. In the gym locker room, a repurposed supply closet because “we’re not really set up for the ladies yet,” Diana embraces Adrian—she won the fight and got the love interest, where Rocky only managed the latter. But her gaze, unlike Rocky’s, is fixed in the distance, steely and resolute. As Diana tells Adrian, “Maybe life’s just war, period.” And she’s ready to fight.