In the opening shot of "Girlfight," the camera slowly moves in on the face of Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) as she gazes back with an expression of unrelenting intensity. She is, frankly, a scary figure -- a coiled bundle of rage with a hair-trigger temper, ready and willing to strike. It's not long before Diana's fighting another high-school girl in a crowded hallway. The frequency of these fisticuffs is about to get her suspended. She could care less.
Living in a cramped apartment in a project high-rise with her bullying father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), and too-sensitive-for-his-own-good brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), Diana looks out her window and sees a predetermined future of docility and domesticity that she cannot accept. One day, she walks into the sweaty, grimy, no-frills gym where Tiny takes boxing lessons and finds a world where she truly belongs.
Writer-director Karyn Kusama doesn't play this as a big-movie moment with a swelling score indicating its importance. Diana's first encounter with the gym and Hector (Jaime Tirelli), the trainer who will guide her in the Tao of boxing, has the same gritty, matter-of-fact feel as the rest of "Girlfight." Kusama's style here is straightforward and unvarnished, with none of Hollywood's glossy sheen.
Pursuing this rough-and-tumble sport, which Diana initially views as a way to hit people without the usual repercussions, yields some unexpected results. She not only begins to create some order in her chaotic world, but finds an unusual supporter in Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a fellow boxer who's being groomed for a professional career.
Boxing movies traditionally focus on an underdog getting a shot at something better, and while "Girlfight" doesn't stray far from this conventional story line, it is radical, and not because the pugilist is female. Here's a sports movie that isn't about winning. For Diana, hope is an indulgence: Her life is about making do and getting by. That she finds a way to live -- to compete and thrive -- via boxing is what's important. Victory is just icing on the cake.
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