One of the few highlights of this year's Seattle International Film Festival was an independent film called "Girlfight," written and directed by first-time filmmaker Karyn Kusama. "Girlfight," which was financed by independent legend John Sayles, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier in the year, but got nothing at Seattle.
It's the story of a 17-year-old Latina from the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn named Diana (Michelle Rodriguez), who lives with her father and younger brother. Diana is failing in school, seething with rage, picking fights with whomever she can and keeping sullenly quiet when she can't. Her father sends Tiny, her brother, to a boxing gym "to learn to protect himself," but it is Diana who wants to fight, and she secretly signs herself up for boxing lessons. She meets a young boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), at the gym, and as the two practice and spar they warily edge toward each other in what might actually become a love, or at least a mutual crush.
The film takes us through Diana's life at the gym and at home, as she struggles with her rage and becomes a real boxer in club bouts. But more than simply a record of training and boxing, the film catches us up emotionally as we see into the life of this remarkable young woman. She is frightened, vulnerable, outspoken, a terror to her friends and enemies and to herself as well. It's a remarkable performance by Rodriguez, who had neither acted nor boxed before being cast in the role, and we in the audience find we've become a kind of surrogate family to her as we watch her heartbreaking, balls-out life unfold before us.
The film has some clunky moments, including a late revelation about the death of Diana's mother that doesn't ring true in the context of what we've seen earlier; but the life of the gym, and the people who hang out there, is captured by Kusama with great love and wit. One precious moment is the singing of the national anthem before a bout, by an aged, gaunt man with a delicious light in his eyes, who obviously has sung it every fight night at the club for what looks like the past sixty years.
In a year that so far has been mediocre at best for films, "Girlfight" stands out with power and beauty to spare.