It's not what you're thinking. In fact, it's like a more pugnacious Billy Elliot
Michelle Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman, a girl in the last year of high school with an attitude that's on the point of getting her expelled. She beats people up. However one day she finds herself visiting a boxing club and likes it. She persuades the old guy in charge to teach her how to hit people with more technique and become a better person. That's about it.
What's good about the film is that it feels real. It's one of those independent movies that turn their lack of glamour into a virtue, feeling more honest because it's putting no filters between you and the scene. The cinematography gives the characters all the time they need and doesn't get in the way. There's no 60-piece orchestra on the soundtrack. It's a rough neighbourhood and it feels like it without having to spice things up with contrived incidents. As a result of all this, you genuinely don't know whether Rodriguez is going to win any given fight and the film's romance is awkward and graceless. I liked this a lot. It's not really a sports film, but more of a coming-of-age story in which our heroine learns how to channel her aggression and stop just kicking back blindly against the world.
Rodriguez is obviously crucial. This was her breakout film and since then she's had a very successful career, with the likes of the Fast and the Furious franchise, Resident Evil, Cameron's Avatar and a regular role in Lost. Unsurprisingly she's excellent, although not yet fully mature. There's a confrontation with her father that a more experienced actress could have got more out of, although that doesn't mean the version we have isn't intense too. However the important thing is that she's completely inhabiting the role, making us empathise with this not particularly likeable protagonist and showing us what's underneath all that anger. She's extremely good. She can be scary. She's up to it physically, convincing us that she can do what the script says she has to. What she achieves here rightly won her a whole bunch of acting awards.
Everyone's in step, though. Rodriguez's fat friend has a glitch in her first scene (only), but otherwise everyone's solid and it doesn't even occur to you that you're watching actors. I particularly liked her dad (Paul Calderon), by the way.
I had a feeling I'd seen the writer/director's name before and I was right. It's Karyn Kusama, who also directed Jennifer's Body
. Whoops. However this is a superior movie in every way and it won her the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Award of the Youth at Cannes. I see Kusama's father is Japanese-American, by the way.
I compared this with Billy Elliot
. Both are about inarticulate, violent young people in a rough community, who fall in love with an activity widely seen as gender-inappropriate. Both protagonists' families also have a brother, a father and a deceased mother, in which the father is paying for boxing lessons for a child who doesn't really want them. The main differences are that Billy Elliot
is too young for romance, while tonally of course this is a rougher, more brutal film with very little charm and more of an edge. However apart from that, they're bookends. Thematically there's no difference at all.
It's even funny! Don't think it's in any way a comedy, mind you. Its laughs don't come through jokes, but simply by being true to itself and letting you enjoy the characters. "Be a man." Rodriguez's first public fight had me laughing, just by virtue of who turns up to watch, while the school physical fitness test is highly entertaining too. This is a really good film, always staying true to itself and avoiding the traditional traps of boxing movies. It doesn't sermonise. It doesn't have melodrama. Instead it has a scrappy little boxing club where the pep signs are written on cardboard and the nearest they have to a mirror is a small patch of badly fitted mirror tiles. That tone is all-important.
What's odd is that I don't even like boxing. Nevertheless it seems to make for good movies. I'm going to have to watch Million Dollar Baby, aren't I?
"Inside, you know yourself?" "Yeah." "That's all you need."