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Director: Karyn Kusama

Executive Producers: John Sayles, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan

Co-Producers: Sarah Green, Martha Griffin, Maggie Renzi

Written by: Karyn Kusama

Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli, Paul Calderon, Santiago Douglas, Ray Santiago, John Sayles

Rating: ----

Twenty minutes into GIRLFIGHT, I felt sure the world was going to think I was a major asshole after reading my review. GIRLFIGHT has been raking in the positive buzz lately, as Sundance Film Festival winners are wont to do (Best Directing and shared Grand Jury Prize). Itís a story anyone should feel good rooting for: Inner-city high school girl with violence issues defies her father by taking up boxing at the all-male neighborhood gym, where she gains discipline, confronts her anger, fights for sexual equality, and learns the meaning of respect. So I was sweating when, after 20 minutes, all I could think was "Boy, this sure is hackneyed." Luckily for my reputation as a sensitive male, the movie got better.

Diana Guzman (Rodriguez) is a proudly fierce girl. Her father Sandro (Calderon) forces her brother Tiny (Santiago) to take boxing lessons in order to equip him for life on the streets, but all Tiny wants to do is listen to classic jazz and draw pictures in his room. Meanwhile, Diana is the one getting into fights in school. She begins to take boxing lessons without her fatherís knowledge, taking up with the gruff-but-kind boxing instructor Hector (Tirelli) and falling for sexy male boxer Adrian (Douglas). (The movieís biggest failing is that Diana never gets to yell "ADRIAN!" in a slurred voice, over and over.)

So far nothing exceptional, I know. The dialogue is fairly tame, and the characters fairly stock. With only one exception, they all fall into the "X with a heart of gold" category. Watching all of this being set up, I was sure I knew exactly how the rest of the movie would go. And for the first half of the movie, I was right. Luckily, things got interesting in the second half.

The soul of this movie is the love story between Diana and Adrian, and itís here that the movie pleasantly began to thwart my expectations. Writer-director Kusama chooses unconventional story directions, and Dianaís boxing matches start to have an emotional weight far beyond what you see in your average boxing movie. It becomes less about the competition and more about the relationship between the fighters. The movieís climactic fight is extremely gripping, because we are emotionally invested in everyone involved.

I wouldnít have guessed this was writer-director Kusamaís first film. Her story is heartfelt and convincing. As a director, she manages to make a dank boxing gym seem both fierce and comforting. The visuals are full of grays, browns and muted colors, but Kusama and cinematographer Cady somehow make them vibrant and alive. The movieís pace is quick but relaxed. Stephan Beatriceís production design is uncluttered, while remaining realistic. Musically, Theodore Shapiroís neo-classical underscoring isnít what would have occurred to most composers, and yet it works wonderfully, raising the quality of the whole movie about two notches.

Where Kusama falls down is in her presentation of extreme conflict; as a result, it all feels a little bit too "safe." Diana takes up boxing to work through her anger, but although the fights are well-staged, they never quite reach the animalistic pitch that makes us feel like her aggressions are being loosed. More damagingly, Dianaís conflicts within her family arenít convincing at all. This is due mainly to the tepid portrayal of her supposedly abusive father, Sandro. Kusama and the miscast Calderon both seem afraid to make him a genuinely dangerous person, and over time this becomes extremely damaging to the believability of Dianaís family dynamics. I felt like Kusama had trouble getting her actors to reach truly uncomfortable places.

The rest of the movie makes up for all of this, though. The other actors are good, and Douglas and Rodriguez smolder convincingly, in a high school sort of way. But special credit goes to Rodriguez in her debut film. She really owns the role of Diana. Although she never reaches the peaks of emotion I would have wished for, I credit that to her inexperience, and I believe her to be entirely capable. She is compelling to watch, and I look forward to seeing whatever she does next.

And the same goes for Kusama. Itís an auspicious debut effort. Although flawed by its efforts to keep it safe, I got emotionally involved with this movie without feeling manipulated. When it was over, I wanted to see what happened next, and thatís always a good sign. GIRLFIGHT left me with a fresh feeling, and thatís well worth the price of admission.

See? I am a sensitive male, after all.

ó QUIN ARBEITMAN: Thespian Extraordinaire

HYBRID Ratings Guide:

- Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

- Itís worth a full-price ticket.

- Itís worth a matinee ticket.

- Wait for video rental.

- Check out the video from the library, if you must.

- While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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