Written and directed by Karyn Kusama

With Michelle Rodriguez, Santiago Douglas, Jaime Tirelli, Ray Santiago, Paul Calderon, and Elisa Bocanegra.

By Sunil Malapati

Male directors have been commenting on women’s issues for a long time–George Cukor made a whole career out of it–so it should hardly be surprising that Karyn Kusama’s debut feature, Girlfight, has as much to say about masculinity as it does about girl power. Last year Kimberly Peirce covered similar territory in Boys Don’t Cry, examining the destructive rituals of male bonding as its protagonist, a transgender girl, tries to survive the macho world of rural Nebraska. Peirce seemed to argue that a man’s virtue is linked to his femininity: Brandon Teena (nee Teena Brandon) is a better person than the rednecks surrounding him only because he was born female and has a greater sensitivity to others. In contrast to that film’s tragic ending, Girlfight focuses on a Puerto Rican teenager who channels her aggression into amateur boxing and grows into both a woman and a champion; Diana is superior to the other women characters precisely because she embraces her masculinity.

The film opens with an extreme close-up of the young woman, her eyes smoldering with rage. Played with Brando-like intensity by Michelle Rodriguez, Diana lives in a Brooklyn housing project with her father and younger brother, and at school her violence against classmates is about to get her expelled. She’s fiercely protective of the two people she cares about–her brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), and best friend, Marisol (Elisa Bocanegra)–and she lashes out at anyone who might be hurting them. For reasons that are never really explained, Diana decides to join the boxing club where Tiny trains, and the art of pugilism redirects her anger in a more positive direction.

In some ways Diana embodies a pervasive fantasy in radical feminism, the woman who’s more macho than any man. In her landmark book Sexual Politics (1970), Kate Millet argues that patriarchy is the fundamental concept of power, that women are essentially helpless because men control all the basic mechanisms of society. Women can try to demolish the patriarchy from without (Millet’s preference) or erode it from within, by accruing power through the methods traditionally used by men. Kusama seems to argue that femininity is a liability in the macho culture of the projects, that given the right conditions a woman can beat a man at his own game.

Amateur boxing is a gentleman’s sport, still observing the Marquess of Queensberry rules set forth in 1867. Unlike professional boxing, it’s not particularly bloody, and because it stresses fluid footwork as much as physical strength, females can and do compete against males in the same weight category. Kusama’s portrayal of the sport is respectful but hardly reverential (as in Raging Bull, for instance). Of the five bouts showcasing Diana, the first is filmed from below eye level, reflecting Diana’s awe at her newfound power, but after she becomes more confident in the ring the bouts are shot at eye level, establishing an even playing field. There’s one notable exception: the film’s only match between Diana and another woman includes two overhead shots; perhaps Diana’s victory against another woman is less significant to Kusama than the ones in which she triumphs over men.

As a boxing story, Girlfight follows the usual movie cliches (the trainer’s initial hesitation, the rigorous training, the breakthrough match, the final bout), and as a genre film it yields the conventional pleasures. But Kusama’s concern with the roles and expectations of gender plays out in the film’s two subplots: Diana’s volatile relationship with her father, Sandro (Paul Calderon in an understated performance), and her blossoming romance with a fellow boxer, Adrian (Santiago Douglas).

Diana keeps her fight career a secret from her father, who would like his daughter to be more “girly,” and it’s no accident that most of the scenes between them are set around the dinner table. Diana is responsible for cooking the meal and washing the dishes, but as her boxing skills increase she grows more comfortable with herself as a person and the family dynamics begin to change. She begins to seem more masculine than her father, and in later scenes Sandro appears drying the dishes while Tiny is acknowledged as the cook. Diana blames Sandro for her mother’s death, and when he learns Diana’s secret the conflict explodes into violence and the father is symbolically castrated; only Tiny’s intervention prevents Diana from snapping Sandro’s neck. The father disappears from the movie after this, his absence noted by an empty seat during the final bout.

More complex is the relationship between Diana and Adrian (his name a play on Talia Shire’s character in Rocky). Initially he treats her as a curiosity–a girl who doesn’t behave like a lady–but as he grows more fascinated by her, she begins to make him feel emasculated. On their first date, a scene played mostly for humor, Diana orders a bacon burger with fries while Adrian, trying to keep his weight down so he can qualify as a featherweight, orders soup and salad. After Diana’s first quarrel with her father she runs to Adrian’s house and joins him in bed (in the only scene that’s genuinely erotic), but Adrian deflects her sexual advances, explaining that his trainer has told him to stay celibate until after an upcoming match. The fact that she’s clothed and he’s naked suggests that he may have a more personal reason for spurning her as well, and subsequently Diana catches him with another girl, the pretty, feminine Kareena.

Not only does Kusama portray masculinity as a virtue, she seems to indict femininity. Diana’s best friend, Marisol, is a doormat who “just want[s] to be friends with everybody,” while another classmate, Veronica, sleeps with a boy Marisol has a crush on simply because she can. Diana’s memory of her mother is a crucial element in the film, but the mother is revealed to be less a hero than a victim. In fact, to find a positive feminine role model one has to look beyond the film’s female characters: Tiny seems like a younger sister when interacting with her, and he’s more interested in getting admitted to art school than in learning to box. One of the film’s warmest moments comes when he first slips her the money their father gives him for lessons so that she can continue her training: he, at least, understands.

While Kusama champions masculinity in women, she offsets it with a range of gender identities and a keen sense of milieu. She vividly captures the housing project where Diana lives, conveying its crime and drugs through dialogue and making effective use of ambient sound to create atmosphere. Education is an empty routine, as two scenes set in a science class make abundantly clear; the teacher (John Sayles), visibly disinterested in his students, is still explaining the difference between speed and velocity to seniors. Adrian sees his boxing career as a way out, but girls have fewer options–they can tag along with their men, like Adrian’s other girlfriend, or try to get along, like Marisol. Diana, of course, rejects both of those options to fight her way out.

Some feminists consider all gender roles the product of socialization, imposed by the patriarchy on children who don’t know any better. Diana’s ultimate triumph in a masculine subculture would seem to confirm this notion. But modern feminism is more accepting of gender differences; as Barbara Ehrenreich recently pointed out in Time, we now recognize a wider range of gender identities, each with a unique place in the spectrum. In Girlfight, Diana’s father occupies one end while Veronica, the school slut, occupies the other. In between lie the more sympathetic figures: Diana, Tiny, Adrian, and Diana’s tough but compassionate trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli, outstanding in a very familiar role). If Kusama has trouble capturing all the colors of the spectrum, it’s because she’s working in the shadow of a shopworn feminism. Can Girlfight II, with Diana taking on Apollo Creed, be far away?