"Catfight!" That's what we used to shout on the playground when two girls would suddenly be going at it. Apparently, they used to shout "Girlfight!" on other playgrounds, because that's the title of writer-director Karyn Kusama's debut film about a woman who takes up boxing to find her place in the world. The thing is, Girlfight's Diana (newcomer Michelle Rodriguez) doesn't just fight other girls. A child of the projects who lost her mother at an early age, she takes on all comers. And those comers had better watch out: Diana packs a wallop. At heart, Girlfight is like any number of gotta-kick-some-ass-to-get-ahead sports movies--Rocky, even The Karate Kid. But Diana's gender is the difference that makes all the difference. (I love the scene where she sniffs her armpit and admits that, yeah, she needs a shower.) Up to her neck in male culture, this one-woman Boxer Rebellion must figure out what to do with her bullying father, her sensitive brother, the trainer who shows her how to box and the boxer who shows her how to love. The answer, as often as not, is to come out swinging.
As for the movie itself, it prefers jabs over a knockout punch. Kusama, who's a John Sayles protégée, lets the drama leak out of some scenes (just as Sayles often does). And, cinematically, she doesn't exactly wow us with her fancy footwork. But she gets the job done, and she's found just the right actress to keep Girlfight smoking. With her mouth in a perpetual sneer, Rodriguez does a lot with her eyes, shifting almost imperceptibly from tough to tender. Paradoxically, boxing brings out both the masculine and the feminine in Diana. They don't call it the sweet science for nothing.