She's Going the Distance

He hit me (and it felt like equality): <i>Girlfight's</I> Michelle Rodriguez and Jaime Tirelli

He hit me (and it felt like equality): Girlfight's Michelle Rodriguez and Jaime Tirelli

This summer John McEnroe tried to dismiss Venus and Serena Williams by declaring that any midlevel male college player could beat them. Presumably, the sisters saw the taunt for the pointless posturing that it was; in any case, they ignored it. I've heard no boasts from them or anyone else regarding female and male athletic equality, and I don't imagine I will for some time. Opportunity in women's sports was long enough in coming that most women are quite happy to be finally getting the chance to compete with each other. But it's entertaining that McEnroe felt compelled to reassert the superiority of men. And it's fascinating that, in the two girl-jock movies released this past year--Love and Basketball and Girlfight--the climax involves a close-fought competition between the protagonist and a male athlete, who is also her lover. What gives?

On one level, I think, these scenes are about the female filmmakers claiming the right to the cineplex--and the attention of you, the viewer--for stories about women athletes. Or, heck, just stories about women. Can't join 'em? Fight 'em: "Pow! Crunch! We can too command a screen!" Unlike sports, cinema does involve toe-to-toe gender battles, and Girlfight at least needs no handicap. Written and directed by John Sayles protégée Karyn Kusama, this debut feature isn't flawless--it was made on the cheap, for one thing, and it shows. But pound for pound, Girlfight has to be the most engaging American film I've seen in 2000.

True, that's not saying a lot. But given this summer's fare, I've got to hang a medal on anyone who can write a coherent script, invent realistic and informative dialogue, choose actors to fit complex parts, and tell the tale with some passion and imagination. Kusama does. It's a small tale--an angry Brooklyn adolescent discovers boxing--but the stakes are higher than they first appear. (Unlike, say, Almost Famous or High Fidelity, where what's at stake actually seems to shrink.) In the end, the director not only fashions an incandescent coming-of-age story--she shakes the cages of both sport and gender.

Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is a kid from the Red Hook projects with lots of sullen energy and nowhere to release it. Except in high school, where she picks fights with manipulative popular girls to defend the honor of other girls who don't want defending. At home, her casually arrogant father Santos (Paul Calderon) pushes her arty brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) to become a man in his mold, springing for boxing lessons while ignoring Diana. One evening, having won some poker money, Santos tells Diana to go pay for Tiny's lessons at his gym. Once there, she's captivated--and inspired: Bare-handed, she lays out her brother's opponent for taking cheap shots.

Obviously, she'll need to learn some control if she is to be a boxer. She'll need to learn a lot of things. As the gym reluctantly accepts Diana into its sweaty sanctum (she steals cash from her father, and her brother's low-rent coach can't turn it down), the movie makes it clear that boxing is an expression of craft, not of temper. Thick and undefined, first-time actor Rodriguez believably bumbles at the boxing bag and huffs through skip-rope. "You've got the endurance of a corpse," coach Hector tells Diana. Jaime Tirelli (Carlito's Way, City of Hope) plays Hector as a man lined by experience, but also by wit; under his patient tutelage, Diana begins to understand a different, more conscious way of being in the world than that of her father, or of Red Hook's violent street life.

To chart Diana's development, Kusama peels away layers of clothing, fatty tissue, protective attitude, family history. First glimpsed under a beetled brow, Diana's eyes open up to let in the light of laughter: Girlfight is often funny, and not only when John Sayles does a breezy cameo. The ancient gym crew is dry and droll. And Rodriguez emotes adolescent emotional gawkiness like a pro; her scenes with fellow featherweight and emerging love interest Adrian (Santiago Douglas) play so rawly awkward and tender that a laugh escaped me once or twice. It's all the more dramatic, then, when Kusama eventually uncovers another hard nut of what Diana learned from her father, and we learn how the girl learned it.

Meanwhile, the fights in the ring are becoming increasingly dynamic. Kusama and her DP Patrick Cady move the camera inside the ropes, shooting from the ceiling and even from behind Diana's eyes. That perilous point of view had me ducking and weaving in my seat. The effect is to ratchet up the tension still higher. And then comes that mysterious climax: girl and guy in the ring, combatants and lovers. Well, sure, we're talking about sex. But there is so much else going on with them besides, it's nigh on unbearable. First off, they're physically beating on each other--which, speaking as a feminist, is a queasy pleasure: Sure, I like to see strong women capably defend themselves, but do I want them to take the offense? Whose language is Diana speaking, and how will it affect her?

Then, of course, this match is a contest of power. Diana has grown so confident that you don't want her to lose--but what happens if Adrian loses? Is he less a "man"? Can the stronger "respect" the weaker (i.e., do men respect women)? Can the weaker respect themselves? Girlfight keeps these questions in the viewer's face, as the boxers punch and push and hang on each other wearily--and oh, it is torturous. I won't say what happens or what comes after, but I will say that it is not something I've ever seen on a movie screen. And that what happens led this viewer to wonder what winning is, and what losing is, and to wonder, too, at the sacrifices both winners and losers will have to make before the field on which men and women are playing is level.