Winner of Best Direction and co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize (with the far superior You Can Count On Me) at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, Girlfight is a serviceable melodrama about a tough-minded urban teenager who channels her aggression into the ring. But it's doubtful the film would be getting much attention were it not for the penetrating scowl and glare of lead actress Michelle Rodriguez, whose extraordinary face validates nearly every cliché that contorts it. And writer-director Karyn Kusama provides plenty of them, eschewing boxing clichés in favor of 'hood clichés, romantic clichés, and single-parent-family clichés. From the terrific opening shot, which slowly closes in on Rodriguez's eyes as she scans the high-school hallways, she holds the screen with her barely contained rage and unwavering sense of justice. Prone to resolving disputes with her fists, Rodriguez is a fixture in detention hall and a hostile presence at home, constantly sparring with abusive father Paul Calderon. But she finds refuge in a dingy Brooklyn gym, where she convinces her brother's trainer (Jaime Tirelli) to give her boxing lessons. Her tender romance with up-and-coming featherweight Santiago Douglas—who aspires to fight professionally as his "ticket out," a colossal cliché—provides the most emotionally resonant scenes in Girlfight. It also sets up the paradox inherent in gender-blind boxing: Men don't want to fight women because they're hesitant to throw the punches needed to win, yet they feel emasculated if they lose. Kusama wisely keeps Rodriguez's boxing exploits on a miniature scale, with no payoffs in the ring that don't also affect the story on a deeper level. Yet despite its genuine warmth and Rodriguez's galvanizing performance, Girlfight is mired by movie-of-the-week predictability and stiff, expository dialogue. (A typical exchange: "Got that scholarship application I was talking about." "What, from that art school?") Considering the unique possibilities of the sport and the star, Girlfight winds up in a disappointingly familiar place.
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