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Hitting Below the Belt

Karyn Kusama's Girlfight looks to assume power by emasculating men

It takes a special kind of mind-set to celebrate castration, and audiences confusing feminine empowerment with the crude hacking off of seemingly oppressive huevos are certain to get a bang out of Girlfight, the gritty debut feature from writer-director Karyn Kusama. Metaphorical or otherwise, there's already a movie about deballing to suit just about any taste, from antiquated sci-fi like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman to countless tales of femmes fatales and perky capers like 9 to 5 and Erin Brockovich, in which corporate machismo gets its voice raised a couple of octaves. Even Stephen King has capitalized on deranged feminine wrath and the resulting invalidity of the masculine via Rob Reiner's Misery (although horrormonger King, perhaps cutting uncomfortably close to his own bone, chose to make his hero-victim a romance novelist). "Ooginess" and bedside hobbling aside, it's energizing to see women finding new power in both the cinema and upon this wrecked planet, but, really now, must it be at the expense of men?

For Kusama, it's an open-and-shut case, as she constructs a universe in which The Man holds all the cards, and the only way to beat him is at his own game, i.e., bludgeoning violence. Following the lead of the similar Knockout earlier this year -- but set in New Jersey rather than East L.A. -- this is a tale of a young Latina who uses the splendid and intelligent sport of boxing to discover her self-confidence and poise. From its opening frames, in which pugnacious high school senior Diana (newcomer Michelle Rodriguez) busts a silly Kubrick psycho stare at the camera (please refer to Nicholson in The Shining or D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket), it's clear that we're in for a long, unpleasant, reactionary ride. With an enthusiasm usually reserved for a root canal or an Anthony Robbins seminar, we lurch into a masturbation session for Krav Maga junkies, where obliteration of the enemy is key, and the only thing missing is an anthem called "Eye of the Tigress."

"Everything I know about being a loser I learned from you, Dad," Diana sneers at her unctuous father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), who, in the absence of his dead wife, scarcely knows how to mix Kool-Aid for Diana and her artsy, effeminate brother, the aptly named Tiny (Ray Santiago). Virtually friendless at school, save for an awkward girl, Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra), whom she champions for no particular reason, Diana seethes with rage, sporadically attacking classless classmates until she's on the brink of expulsion. In a world run by a profoundly dorky white faculty ("Have you ever considered how much more effective it'll be to talk about your disagreement?"), the preverbal Diana spends every waking minute on the verge of snapping. Not feral so much as sullen and vicious, she's a desperate loner with no future in sight. Imagine a female adolescent take on Taxi Driver, or as the director herself has put it, "Brando as a teenage girl."

Down for the count: Diana (Michelle Rodriguez) steals a kiss and maybe a title from her beau, Adrian (Santiago Douglas).
James Bridges
Down for the count: Diana (Michelle Rodriguez) steals a kiss and maybe a title from her beau, Adrian (Santiago Douglas).

Details

Rated R

In a futile attempt to shape Tiny into something vaguely anthropomorphic, Sandro pays for boxing lessons at a cruddy gym littered with hopeful, grammatically challenged cardboard signs, such as "When your not training, someone else is training to kick your ass!" Once Diana shows up and displays an acute gift for the... um... savage craft, a firm but compassionate trainer named Hector (Jaime Tirelli) agrees to take her on. Despite some initial reluctance, Diana is soon running her requisite miles and punching the bag, and the scrapper gradually transforms into a skillful pugilist. But of course there is a problem in the emotional arena: A fellow featherweight named -- one imagines, with a nod and a wink to Rocky -- Adrian (Santiago Douglas) has taken a liking to his coarse sparring partner, and vice versa. Before long, Hector initiates open-gender matches, and it's not difficult to guess how things will proceed from there.

Thematically, it's difficult to weigh in on Girlfight without revealing the ending, so here's a question for you: Back in 1976, would we have applauded if Sylvester Stallone had purposefully beaten Talia Shire out of her only shot at a figure-skating title, especially if it represented escape from obscurity and mediocrity? Probably not. For a similar reason, Diana's victories in Girlfight ultimately ring hollow, and it's artificial and nauseating to watch Adrian transform from a hopeful contender into a limp dishrag. When Hector coaches Diana, "I don't care who this guy is, don't be afraid to hurt him," it's natural to feel a gag reflex. When Adrian pathetically begs for Diana's respect, the vomit blasts forth.

On the technical side, Girlfight stays true to its rough-hewn soul, evidenced by a lurching, manhandled camera and a musty array of decaying environments. There are also boxing clichés aplenty in the ringside segments, but Theodore Shapiro's clap-happy and classically tinged score, laden with surprising bursts of flamenco, keeps the images from feeling stagnant. If only it could have been mixed louder, to cover some of the stilted performances, as our ill-tempered heroine only behaves like a human being late in the movie, when she's courting her beau or discussing her mother. For the remainder, we're stuck in the ring with a vicious sourpuss.

 
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