Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The new directorial debuts The Broken Hearts Gallery and Antebellum have us thinking back on some of our favorite first features.
Michelle Rodriguez leads with her eyes. The defiant gaze that announces her presence in Karyn Kusama’s debut film, Girlfight, secured her a tough-girl reputation that she’s parlayed into steady supporting work in action blockbusters ever since. Franchises like The Fast And The Furious, Resident Evil, and Avatar have benefited from Rodriguez’s ability to believably throw a punch. But no film since Girlfight has given her the same opportunity for depth or nuance. It proved she was a real actress, not just a badass.
Girlfight was Rodriguez’s first speaking role. She stars as high school senior Diana Guzman, who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Not at school, where she is repelled by the performed femininity of other girls, and not at home, where her father, Sandro (Paul Calderón), alternately ignores or mocks her. But Diana has a code, and that’s to stand up for the underestimated and unwanted; she defends her friend (Elisa Bocanegra) after another girl sleeps with the guy she likes, and her younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), when their father denigrates his art-school aspirations. She’s always willing to put up her fists to prove her loyalty.
It’s when Diana steps foot into the boxing gym where Tiny trains with fighter-turned-coach Hector Soto (Jaime Tirelli) that she begins to realize her anger could be an asset. Shallow-focus shots establish her loneliness—while being lectured by her principal or belittled by her father—but in the gym, Kusama’s perspective widens. A boxing ring fashioned out of a sagging mattress. Walls with more paint chipped off than still clinging on. Motivational slogans scrawled in marker on battered pieces of cardboard. The place needs some love, but it has purpose. Maybe Diana could find that, too.
Girlfight, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, announced Kusama’s alliance with the “difficult” woman. It’s an interest that’s played out across her whole filmography, a line of genre pictures that have experienced a pattern of reception—often disappointing critically or commercially upon initial release, before being reclaimed as cult favorites years later—that makes plain the uphill battle perpetually faced by women making movies about women. It was Æon Flux that laid the tracks for Charlize Theron’s reinvention as an action star, Jennifer’s Body that features Megan Fox’s most sly and self-aware performance, and Destroyer that rendered Nicole Kidman unrecognizably gritty. The common denominator in all those films—plus Kusama’s creepy cult-horror indie The Invitation—is female characters that refuse to take no for an answer.
Girlfight is the director’s first and purest tribute to feminine rebelliousness. Following Diana as she throws herself into training, the film hits the expected beats of an underdog sports movie. But Kusama sets her addition to the genre apart by thoughtfully considering how a young woman would navigate such a male-dominated world. It’s an uphill battle colored by the casual sexism that pervades everyday life, from a rival coach exasperatedly saying, “Boys are different from girls. What’s so wrong with saying that out loud?” to a match attendee assuming that Diana’s name is a misprint in the program. In practically every scene, Kusama pushes against gendered biases.
Her greatest asset is Rodriguez’s grounded performance, which moves among a variety of emotions—anger, resentment, disappointment, joy, pride—without ever feeling overwrought. The set of her jaw when Hector guides her through improving her footwork. The girlish grin that breaks out on her face during her first kiss with fellow fighter Adrian (Santiago Douglas). The matter-of-factness with which she describes to Marisol what draws her to the sport: “It’s like you’re all you’ve got. You’re all alone in there.” And, most memorably, the glare that returns once Diana steps into the boxing ring for her final fight—the same expression as the one she wears at the start, hinting at myriad frustrations whirling around in Diana’s head. But by the end, the look has a different meaning, intensified by her preparation, determination, and ability to finally do something with all her anger. Girlfight made a promise to investigate and empathize with outside-of-the-box perspectives like Diana’s. Two decades and several films later, Kusama has kept it.
Availability: Girlfight is streaming on Amazon and DirectTV with a STARZ premium subscription. It can also be rented or purchased through Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, DirectTV, and VUDU.