Toward the end of Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight, as the film‘s tough young female boxer dukes it out against a male opponent in a battle that could determine her future as an athlete, I felt a peculiar sense of dread. I realized, and not without shame, that I was not sure I wanted her to win. In a culture that, for all its progress, still mutters under its breath that strength in women is threatening, the consequences of success are likely to be scornful gossip, intimidated lovers, isolation and resentment. While I couldn’t quite root for her to lose, it seemed to me the lesser of evils: The disappointment of defeat would fade in a few months; the bitterness of being punished for winning could linger a lifetime.
I was not proud of these thoughts. This is, after all, the season when the well-defined shoulders of formidable Olympian athletes Marion Jones and Stacy Dragila are being worshipped even in fashion magazines that typically exalt only the most bird-boned of arms, when more little girls profess to be emulating buff Brandi Chastain than they are Kate Moss. And Collette Dowling‘s timely new book, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality, mounts an assault on negative assumptions about women’s innate physical prowess. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether this paradigm shift we so celebrate is something men can handle.
That Kusama‘s film, made for close to $1 million, so forcefully invokes this dilemma is surely part of the reason Girlfight has been captivating audiences at international festivals. Another part is the unrestrained conviction of Michelle Rodriguez, the rookie actress Kusama found to play the lead role. At the Sundance Film Festival last winter, an event Kusama calls ”a crazy zoo of art and commerce,“ Girlfight won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film and Best Director for Kusama. At Cannes, the 32-year-old Kusama was an overnight sensation, and the writer-director, who with her art-girl glasses and solemn demeanor seems much more a creature of the library reading room than the festival party circuit, found herself being courted aggressively by the European press. She has suddenly been vaulted into the ranks of hot young low-budget film directors, and even this victory has its downside. ”It feels very weird,“ Kusama says, ”to have to put a spin on my own life.“
Kusama is a petite and unimposing woman who seems an unlikely pugilist, and an even less likely catalyst for feminist rage. She grew up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, where her mother earned a Ph.D. while holding down a full-time job and struggling to manage a household. ”Housework was always an issue,“ Kusama remembers, ”a very emotional issue, and I grew up realizing that was not going to be me.“ She fled to college immediately out of high school and studied filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
On the surface, Kusama has little in common with Girlfight‘s 18-year-old protagonist, Diana Guzman, who lives in a Brooklyn housing project with her domineering father and younger brother. ”But the level of dissatisfaction she feels with the way the world seems to work is very real to me,“ Kusama argues, ”and so is her frustration.“ Determined to train for the ring despite her father’s ridicule, Diana steals his money to pay her trainer; later, her studious brother hands over his own fees for the gym training his father has forced on him. The movie‘s subtext treads on poverty, parental expectation and race, themes the European press wanted to explore at length. But the politics, Kusama maintains — with the exception of sexual politics — are incidental. ”They made me realize that I had no intention of making a political statement,“ says Kusama. ”I just wanted to tell this story.“
Over dinner at Delmonico’s, Kusama flags when pressed to answer personal questions, but picks up again when the subject turns to what makes plots work and movies popular, and what‘s wrong with Hollywood. From the time her parents took her to her first PG film, in which she witnessed King Kong’s giant finger rip away Jessica Lange‘s blouse, she has been plotting, unconsciously at first, to craft well-made narratives using cinema as her medium. Girlfight was inspired by her own adventures in the boxing gym, which began in 1993 and tapered off as she got more deeply involved in writing a screenplay. ”I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t going to become somebody who was going to compete,“ Kusama says. ”I just didn‘t have that kind of instinct in me. But it was very easy for me to imagine a woman who would discover this sport and want to excel unto herself, and be defined as the best.“ Even if, as it does in Girlfight, being the best threatens the very social order on which many women believe their happiness depends — marriage and family.
Kusama rejected a slew of experienced actresses in favor of Rodriguez, because she wanted a rawness to the film’s central performance. ”I always intended to have a social-realist feel,“ she says, ”you know, like those old movies that sort of have a gritty feeling, an Everyman feeling.“ If Girlfight feels ingenuous and rough, it is no accident: Even its spontaneity was meticulously thought out.
”I wrote my first draft in 1995,“ Kusama says, ”and it was like jelly, unformed and so simplistic it was embarrassing.“ Most of the problem lay with her main character, she realized. ”She was just violent. She didn‘t have any humanity — she was like a machine. That could serve me well in another genre, but I knew that if I wanted a character-driven story I needed to think a lot more about where she was coming from, both literally and figuratively.“ The script’s secondary characters were in even worse shape. Kusama showed the script to John Sayles, whom she‘d met through a mutual friend. Sayles, who ended up co-producing the film with his partner, Maggie Renzi, suggested she try writing a draft from the perspective of Diana’s boyfriend.
”I spent a year developing those characters,“ Kusama says. ”I went through this period of being a lot more open to people, to asking questions of strangers — being a researcher, an interloper. It took a kind of guts that I didn‘t know I had.“ Success, though, has made her aware that if she endures much more celebrity, that acquired skill will become a luxury she can no longer afford. ”I imagine that’s what I bemoan about being around the film industry,“ she says. ”You‘re not near real people anymore. And if you’re not near people, how can you tell their stories?“
You can‘t, Kusama insists. And you certainly can’t compensate with digital effects. Despite her desire to direct a big-budget action picture one day (”but only if I get the autonomy of James Cameron or John Woo“), Kusama dreams of a Hollywood that relies less heavily on pyrotechnics and gore, of which Girlfight has neither. True to her principles, Kusama shows hardly a punch landing, focusing instead on the consequences, emotional and physical, of every fight.
”Just a couple of months ago, on TV, I saw The Parallax View,“ Kusama explains animatedly. ”It‘s one of my favorite movies. And there’s this great scene in which Warren Beatty gets off the plane, and you know there‘s a bomb on the plane, and then you hear the deafening roar of airplanes landing on this huge strip, and see that warped effect that the air has when it’s really hot, and the atmosphere trembling right in front of you. The camera shakes, and you hear this huge explosion, and it‘s so much more effective to be holding on this smoggy airstrip than to actually see the plane explode.“
In the same spirit, Girlfight proves that a film whose politics are incidental can make a stronger social argument than one that strains for a point. Kusama may not have set out to make a political statement; she has, nonetheless, put the urgent issue of women’s bodies and their limits in visceral terms.