Fighting Chance

In the ring with Karyn Kusama, the Ladue-bred writer/director of Girlfight

Girlfight, written and directed by Karyn Kusama, has already generated such a buzz in the movie biz -- it was awarded both the Director's Prize and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January and the Young Cinema Award at Cannes in May -- that it's as if the film is already a huge hit. Ladue High grad Kusama, St. Louis-born and raised, is in town for a special screening at the Tivoli Theatre, and she thrills to see the poster for Girlfight in the theater's lobby with the words "Coming Soon." However, it is also a sobering reminder that her first film hasn't yet been released to the general public. Despite all the critical acclaim Girlfight has received, there remains the question of whether it will connect with a mass audience.

Girlfight has the look of a champion. First-time actress Michelle Rodriguez gives a mesmerizing performance as Diana, a high-school delinquent filled with pent-up rage who smolders on the screen like the young Brando. When Diana gets mad, which is often, she hits people. She hides the pain of a motherless child: Her mother is dead, her father uncaring. Her younger brother harbors conflicted feelings of awe, fear and affection for her. Diana has a future as bleak as the deteriorating surroundings of Red Hook, N.J., where she lives.

On an errand for her father, Diana goes to the gym where her brother is taking boxing lessons. The father wants to toughen the slight, artistic son for the hard world; he has no such considerations for his troubled daughter. In the dirty, sweaty, proto-masculine environs of the boxing gym, Diana glimpses salvation. She returns and eventually coaxes her brother's trainer, Hector (brilliantly portrayed by the veteran character actor Jaime Tirelli), to teach her the ways of the ring.

What follows, Kusama acknowledges, is a conventional screen narrative. Kusama describes it: "The everyday guy makes good, the triumph over adversity, the working-class-hero story -- all that is very much a part of Girlfight's traditions. But it's just -- sadly -- made fresh because it's a female protagonist. But the story itself, the linearity of it, is so commonplace, which is kind of interesting to figure out: 'How do I make this fresh? How do I inject this with style?'"

With a 24-day shooting schedule and a minuscule (by American film standards) million-dollar budget, the way Kusama, cast and crew solved those dilemmas belongs under the heading of "minor miracle." Girlfight, for all its conventions, is remarkably compelling. The characters are fully formed and win the audience's sympathies. The film has a great look, from Rodriguez and Santiago Douglas (playing the love interest, Adrian) -- who are two of the more gorgeous couples to yearn for on the big screen in recent years -- to the squalid integrity of the gritty gym and the industrial urban landscapes, to the intense, concentrated focus Kusama brings to scenes in the ring. Girlfight isn't flawless, but it delivers its emotional power with honesty and conviction rather than sentimentality and formula, as do too many American movies.

Kusama credits the influence of American-independent-film pioneer John Sayles in rendering her characters, as she describes them, "with both more real limitation and more real potential." Kusama, who elicited Sayles' support as executive producer for Girlfight and cast him as a hilariously nerdy science teacher, remarks on how characters in his films suggest "a life that exists outside the realm of the film, which I think is always an interesting feat. That's something that John had always encouraged in me when I was doing rewrites of this script. He said, 'Just take a day and imagine Adrian as your main character. Make sure his life is as interesting to you as Diana's.'"

Kusama admires Sayles for his "faith in people, humanity and that people are inherently interesting. He has that commitment to people." Kusama aspires to a similar commitment in her film practice. Having grown up in Ladue with two-career parents, both professionals, Kusama is nevertheless drawn to the stories of the poor and unknown rather than those of the rich and famous. After film school at New York University, Kusama trained as a boxer, entering a gym life similar to her protagonist's, because she feared at the time that her life was becoming too comfortable. As a filmmaker, she's not interested in the lives of the untroubled, either: "We see a lot of movies about a lot of really wealthy white people whose problems seem negligible in the scope of things. Plot becomes their problem, and it's sort of imposed on them, but otherwise life seems pretty good.

"There's a dishonesty to that. To me, what's interesting about this story is that Diana doesn't need boxing or a love story and its subsequent crises for her life to be a constant series of conflicts. Her life is conflicted because life is hard."

Diana is 17 and about as distant from the teenagers found on the WB network as she can get. Part of the freshness found within the conventions of Girlfight comes from Kusama's accurate depiction of the struggles of adolescence. "I find it to be a really interesting new development that we have more recorded incidents of youth violence -- deadly violence against other youth, against adults, against themselves -- that all spring from an inability to communicate, an inability to articulate even the most basic needs and desires," she says. "Then that's all weirdly coexisting with this media depicting all these incredibly articulate, sensitive, adult, almost problemless people. Their problems are made to be about adult concerns that haven't even really hit us yet (when we're adolescent) -- we're still working on the basics when we're in high school. We're trying to figure out why we should be getting up in the morning. Not to be too much of a downer, but that's something you can take into your adult life. So it's even more galling to see these superconfident fantasies, but a lot of movies and TV have gone into that direction."

Kusama observes that the general Hollywood formula not only neglects reality that would make for more intriguing and complex story material but also ignores the possibilities still present within narrative conventions when those conventions are slightly altered: "There's a tradition in classical narrative of the antihero, whether it's Hamlet, who cannot make a decision -- as opposed to somebody who is always acting -- or Travis Bickle, who can barely speak. We have this idea of an antihero who gets under our skin, who speaks to -- at least initially -- our worst self as opposed to our best. It isn't necessarily a fantasy of who we can be but a nightmare character. I find that pretty compelling. It's a pretty rich tradition, this sort of antisocial, disillusioned, angry common everyday person. That's a powerful American archetype.

"I thought it would be very interesting to have a simple story in which that role was occupied by a woman, because we're so accustomed to that space being occupied by a man that we almost forget that women have those feelings of disappointment and alienation and disillusionment. And maybe they're asked or required or encouraged to deal with it differently, but it's not that they don't feel it."

In choosing the actor to portray this complex, alienated and angry -- yet, at the same time, appealing -- character, perhaps the most courageous chance Kusama took with her film was to choose the inexperienced Rodriguez, a gamble that has contributed enormously to Girlfight's success. Rodriguez trained for four months to transform herself into a boxer fit for the big screen, then constructed a complicated character in concert with veteran actors.

Kusama says she recognized a "tremendous physical presence" in Rodriguez during early casting calls: "She looks like an athlete already. She carries herself with that kind of confidence." However, Rodriguez had no acting experience and no boxing experience, nor had she ever held a full-time job. "That was the most damaging criteria, in my estimation," recalls Kusama, "because I felt she's got to show up every day, she's got to train, she's got to be fresh for this. She's in every scene in the movie, and she can't hold anything up. We have 24 days and a million dollars, and she can't possibly understand what that means."

Yet Rodriguez made choices about her role that gives the film its emotional center. "She instinctually understood this character has to be a human being. She could have played it from what it was on the page -- just pure rage, no softness whatsoever. She could have gone another direction with the script, but early, early in the movie -- which is not what I would have anticipated -- she brought a vulnerability to her character, a hurt quality you can't necessarily write in. You have to direct it, or direct the actor toward it -- sometimes they get it and sometimes they don't. She really had this wounded pride, this wounded quality that made her anger so much more interesting. I think that is why people root for her, because she's sort of like a hurt animal."

Girlfight is a film to root for because it achieves its artistic success with "no stars, just talent" -- totally devoid of the cynicism of that motto as it is delivered in Robert Altman's cruel satire of the film world, The Player. And Kusama is a young director to root for as she now negotiates the burden of possibilities ahead as the hot new talent. She recognizes the pitfalls. In trying to find the funding for Girlfight, she found great resistance toward a unique woman's story, but Kusama says, "I would venture to say that we don't see very many interesting stories about men. Both men and women get pretty shafted by the Hollywood machine." As she negotiates with that machine, here's hoping she remembers to watch her footwork and keep her guard up.

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