I was a very angry kid who got into a lot of fights in school. I went to a school full of nerds – and I was one of them – so fights weren’t going to lead to hospital visits and they were very short, but I had such a short fuse that I would just go off on whatever kid pissed me off that day. I really, really wanted to take martial arts. I finally did learn to kickbox with a trainer as an adult, but had to stop because of an injury. I’ve watched a lot of boxing and MMA ever since. So GIRLFIGHT has long been on my list of films I should have seen by now. Good thing I have a column that makes me watch movies directed by women and POC.
I also really, really love Karyn Kusama, who directed this week’s film from 2000, GIRLFIGHT. Any time a producer asks me who we should approach with my script, her name is the first one out of my mouth. I actually interviewed her with my cohosts on the podcast I used to do, Chicks Who Script. Somehow the whole show got lost on the Internet, but she talked a bit about GIRLFIGHT and its star, Michelle Rodriguez, in her first film role. Kusama told us that Rodriguez, an unknown at the time, showed up for her audition filled with attitude, but was so obviously the perfect actress for the role that they had to have her. And I think we can all see why. RIP Letty and then also just kidding! Letty’s not dead! Long live Letty!
Kusama wrote GIRLFIGHT after she learned how to box and wanted to write about it with a female protagonist (this film was released 4 years before Million Dollar Baby and 12 years before Ronda Rousey fought her first UFC match). There have been approximately 539,872,621 movies about boxers that end with some kind of match where the boxer has to prove himself, so GIRLFIGHT had to separate itself, and it did. With a hard-won $1M budget, GIRLFIGHT was very well received and launched a pretty active career for Kusama.
This is one of the few times a woman directed an indie and it landed her a big budget action movie – 2005’s AEON FLUX, which is, of course, a pretty legendary bomb with critics, and did not make back its budget, reportedly because it was heavily recut by the studio just before its release. But Kusama would work with its writers, Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay again (Hay is her husband and they are both just excellent guys), most notably on the film THE INVITATION, which is a fabulous little quiet thriller that everyone should watch. I still think about THE INVITATION a lot. But Kusama has continued to have a pretty active career of directing television and film to much critical acclaim and financial succeed. AEON FLUX has long since been redeemed.
But this article is about GIRLFIGHT.
One thing I find intriguing about GIRLFIGHT is that it’s not really a story about an athlete proving something to themselves. Boxing movies are ALWAYS about athletes trying to prove to themselves that they can defeat their own insecurities. There’s some of that here – Diana (Michelle Rodriguez) wants to learn to box after watching her brother Tiny (Ray Santiago, who you probably saw in the complete opposite role on ASH VS EVIL DEAD). She is filled with rage after her mother’s suicide and her father’s abusive and neglectful behavior. She gets into fights at school, but once she learns about boxing, she begins training, and uses it to control her rage.
But the conflict in this film isn’t really within Diana. From the minute her story starts, Diana is confident in who she is. She needs to control her rage, sure – and I really related to that – but the bigger character story is external. Other people in her life expect her to be a “lady” or to be content with the stereotypical expectations of a teenage girl from a poor neighborhood. She finds a trainer who takes her seriously, but nobody else does. The other trainers think this is a fool’s errand. Even the male boxer she falls in love with doesn’t see her as an equal in the ring, so when she finally fights him, the story need isn’t about winning. Whether she wins or not is irrelevant. The boy doesn’t want to hit her. His trainer doesn’t want him to fight her. Neither one of them takes this fight seriously. Her father doesn’t take her fighting seriously. Her brother does, though, so there’s a good apple in there. But the point of this fight is not to conquer something within herself – it’s to do so well that the men around her can’t help but take her seriously. And they do. Not her dad so much, but that’s dads for you.
You may be thinking, “Hey. Emily, this is a boxing movie. Are there training montages?”
Yes. There are so many training montages. You can’t have a boxing movie without training montages. It’s simply not allowed. But what’s cool about these montages is the contrast. In a few cases, there’s pre-lap dialogue- not about training or fighting, but about physics. And the music over these scenes is lilting piano music. It creates more of a thoughtful montage as averse to the usual rah-rah kick it’s ass! Kind of scene. You really get the sense that those moments are calming for her. It’s a lovely contrast. The outside world is chaos, but the supposedly violent world of boxing is where she finds a zen space.
Feel free to suggest films for future articles or share your feelings on this one. Next week, I’ll be watching Robert Rodriguez’ career defining one-man-band film, EL MARIACHI, which is currently free to watch on Crackle and pretty widely available otherwise.
Emily Blake writes screenplays with lots of fight scenes. She is a vocal advocate for feminism, polyamory, kink, and sex positivity. She makes most of her money as a script supervisor for film and television, but she also makes cosplays for clients out of her little apartment in Los Angeles.