Girlfight (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: May 30, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Girlfight (Blu-ray Review)


Karyn Kusama

Release Date(s)

2000 (May 28, 2024)


Green-Renzi/IFC/Screen Gems (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1219)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

Girlfight (Blu-ray)

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Directors of independent films typically emphasize character over spectacle. Girlfight focuses on a disadvantaged young woman from the New York City projects who turns to boxing as a way to channel much of her pent-up anger. The film shows how despair can fuel determination, fury can fuel grit, and vulnerability and affection can transform aggression into maturity and open up unforeseen possibilities.

Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez, The Fast and the Furious) is an indifferent high school student who has gotten into four fights at school. Her friends tiptoe around her volatility and the principal warns her that one more fight will get her expelled. Diana’s mother has been dead for many years and there’s a mutual antagonism between Diana and her father (Paul Calderon, Cop Land). Her closest bond is with her younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago, Bringing Rain), a sensitive boy who has been coerced by their father into taking boxing lessons.

At the Brooklyn Athletic Club one day to drop off something for her brother, Diana becomes impressed with the young men working out, sparring, and getting into fighting shape. There are no female boxers, but Diana decides she wants to take boxing lessons. One of the coaches, Hector (Jaime Tirelli, Carlito’s Way), reluctantly agrees to instruct her for $10 a lesson. Coming up with the money is problematic but Diana finds a way. Though sometimes feeling defeated by the strenuous workouts, she perseveres. Soon, she’s channeling her hostility and energy into the sport and is getting along better at school. At home, however, Diana’s relationship with her father is worsening.

As her training progresses, Diana notices and is attracted to fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas, Punto 45). Their relationship starts awkwardly but eventually develops as they come to know each other. Diana’s defenses gradually subside, and she falls in love for the first time. When Diana’s priorities conflict with Adrian’s, however, their relationship is threatened.

Writer/director Karyn Kusama draws us in with the perfect casting of Michelle Rodriguez (in her first movie). In addition to an exquisite ability to convey her thoughts through facial expression and body language, Rodriguez is athletic and muscular. She can be frightening when Diana turns to violence at the slightest trigger and a formidable opponent in the ring, but she also is able to show Diana’s tender side. The role is difficult because of the acting range required and Rodriguez makes us believe her character completely. Director Kusama knows exactly when to linger on Rodriguez’s face for dramatic effect.

Tirelli convinces us immediately that Hector is a tough, pragmatic coach who figures Diana will disappear after one session but grudgingly acknowledges her ability and dedication, sets aside his skepticism and pushes Diana hard. As Hector becomes not only Diana’s coach but also her advisor, refuge, and father figure, Tirelli never allows his performance to devolve into sentimentality.

As Diana’s love interest, Douglas is somewhat tenuous as an actor but develops a winning rapport with Rodriguez. His Adrian conveys sensitivity, charm, and sensuality, qualities that allow Diana to let down her defenses.

Kusama creates outstanding ambiance in the gym scenes. Dilapidated, with peeling paint and dim lighting, the grubby gym has none of the glamour that the fighters hope for when they complete professionally. Extras of many different ages, races, and body types comprise an all-important element of the film’s atmosphere. With the exception of Jaime Tirelli, the cast is composed of unknowns. The romantic subplot is integral to character development, as Diana comes to acknowledge her softer, gentler side and Adrian learns about genuine love.

For those who enjoy character-driven movies, Girlfight is a rewarding experience. Shot in a no-frills style that emphasizes story over special effects (the only optical shot is a freeze frame at the end), the movie captures a milieu and a sport that offers opportunity typically to young men but also to a young woman who wants to avoid a dead-end life consumed by rage.

Girlfight was shot by director of photography Patrick Cody on Super 16mm film, blown up to 35 mm, and presented theatrically in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. According to information in the enclosed booklet, “the new 4K digital master was created from the 35 mm A/B roll original camera negative.” Contrast and clarity are excellent. Details are prominent in Diana’s cornrow hairdo, dingy decor in the gym, lockers in the high school hallway, Adrian’s facial stubble, and grizzled faces of the coaches. One especially striking composition is a two-shot of Adrian and Diana in silhouette, backlit, giving them a halo effect.

The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The score by Theodore Shapiro is distinctive and unusual. Made up of a series of claps that vary in tempo, piano solo, and orchestral music, the score has a driving energy that picks up on Diana’s wound coil of a temper. The clapping, in particular, creates tension. Sound effects include body pummeling, car engines, ambient street noise, hallway noise of students moving from class to class, and a physical confrontation between Diana and her father.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Director Karyn Kusama
  • Body and Soul: Karyn Kusama on Girlfight (25:38)
  • Interview with Editor Plummy Tucker and Composer Theodore Shapiro (21:05)
  • Storyboard-to-Film Comparison (7:13)
  • Trailer (2:17)

Audio Commentary – Director Karyn Kusama notes that Girlfight started out as a low-budget film and eventually got a $1 million budget and a 24-day shooting schedule. Her original concepts had to be pared down. Rodriguez had the ability to connect with the audience despite having had little acting experience. All locations required authenticity. Kusama discusses various sets and locations used in the movie. Most of the characters are introduced in the film’s first ten minutes. There’s a dense sound design in Diana’s home environment—a busy urban setting. Kusama discusses the downside of filming a low-budget movie, often “on the fly.” Sometimes, little things turn out to be a human issue, such as actors sweating in a car scene. The original cut of Girlfight was close to three hours, so many scenes had to be eliminated or shortened. The editing process took twelve weeks. A good editor is essential because Kusama became “hack happy.” Because she wanted to show the world of boxing beyond the amateur level, Kusama included the scene at a professional venue featuring up-and-coming fighters. Glamor is part of the allure for many boxers. The romantic scenes between Diana and Adrian show Diana’s need for warmth. In a scene in which Diana attacks her father, Rodriguez accidentally hit actor Paul Calderon. Intense heat on the set that day exacerbated tensions. For the ending, Kusama wanted “a certain level of uncertainty.” It was important that the audience see that Diana has changed.

Body and Soul: Karyn Kusama on Girlfight – Writer/director Karyn Kusama explores the personal and artistic inspirations that informed her creative process in making Girlfight. She was inspired by seeing Eraserhead in 1977. She saw different ways movies work on people. Movies can hold big ideas and metaphors that reach the unconscious. She studied film at NYU. Clips from some of her student films are interspersed. She was fascinated by how much the camera can reveal in a person’s face. Her first film was supposed to be much darker than Girlfight, but it proved difficult to get made. Kusama got the idea for Girlfight when she was boxing in a gym with a few other women. She wanted to evoke the “magic” of the gym. It took a few years to make the movie. Many of the faces in the picture were not typically seen on screen. Kusama discusses the collaboration between herself and Rodriguez to shape the role of Diana, a different type of heroine who had a masculinized quality in some behaviors but also feminine vulnerabilities.

Interview with Editor Plummy Tucker and Composer Theodore Shapiro – Both filmmakers began a longtime collaboration with director Karyn Kusama on Girlfight. They reminisce about this first project together and the creative decisions that affected their work. They refer to the movie as “a true coming-of-age story.” A girl escapes her troubled teenage years. The shooting period was very limited. Shapiro explains how he approached scoring Girlfight, noting that he wanted to give the movie a lyricism, but added clapping and piano solo to emphasize a driving quality. He used a blend of propulsive elements plus a through line of classical music. Diana’s development is shown in each of her three boxing matches. The final fight had to be spare but operatic with the music enhancing the sequence.

Storyboard-to-Film Comparison – Karyn Kusama’s original storyboards along with her commentary follow the genesis and development of two scenes in Girlfight. Actual film with corresponding storyboards are shown.

Booklet – The accordion-style booklet contains the essay Taking by Storm by Carmen Maria Machado, 6 color photos, cast and crew listing, and details about the new 4K digital master.

Girlfight is a well told story about authentic, flawed people in gritty circumstances. Diana Rodriguez is an unusual lead character who undergoes some significant changes as she gets involved in the world of amateur boxing, a sport that diverts her life from constant anger to one of hope for a brighter tomorrow. The movie bogs down somewhat with too many over-extended romantic scenes slowing the narrative just when momentum should be steady. Nevertheless, Michelle Rodriguez’s amazing performance should not be missed.

- Dennis Seuling