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Gender Bent 

Michelle Rodriguez puts the Grrr into Girlfight.

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It takes a special mindset to celebrate castration, and audiences confusing feminine empowerment with the crude hacking off of seemingly oppressive huevos are certain to get a bang out of Girlfight, the gritty debut from writer-director Karyn Kusama. Metaphorical or otherwise, there's already a movie about deballing to suit just about any taste, and while it's energizing to see women finding new power in both cinema and this wrecked planet, must it be at the expense of men?

Kusama has constructed a universe in which The Man holds all the cards, and the only way to beat him is at his own game: Bludgeoning violence. This is a tale of a young Latina woman who uses the sport of boxing to discover her self-confidence and poise. From its opening frames, in which pugnacious high-school senior Diana (newcomer Michelle Rodriguez) busts a silly stare at the camera, it's quite clear that we're in for a long, unpleasant ride.

"Everything I know about being a loser I learned from you, Dad," Diana sneers at her unctuous father, Sandro (Paul Calderon), who, in the absence of his dead wife, scarcely knows how to mix Kool-Aid for Diana and her effeminate brother Tiny (Ray Santiago). Virtually friendless at school, Diana seethes with rage, sporadically attacking classmates until she's on the brink of expulsion. More sullen than feral, she's a desperate loner with no future in sight.

In a futile attempt to shape Tiny into something vaguely virile, Sandro pays for boxing lessons at a cruddy gym. Once Diana shows up and displays an acute gift for the craft, a firm but compassionate trainer called Hector (Jaime Tirelli) agrees to take her on. Despite some initial reluctance, Hector soon has Diana running and punching, and the scrapper transforms into a skillful pugilist. But, of course, there is a problem: A fellow featherweight named Adrian (Santiago Douglas) has taken a liking to his sparring partner and vice versa. Before long, Hector initiates open-gender matches, and it's easy to guess how things proceed from there.

Thematically, it's difficult to weigh in on Girlfight without revealing the ending, so here's a question for you: Back in 1976, would we have applauded if Sylvester Stallone purposefully beat Talia Shire out of her only shot at a figure-skating title, especially if it represented escape from obscurity and mediocrity? Probably not. For a similar reason, Diana's victories ultimately ring hollow, and it's nauseating to watch Adrian transform from a hopeful contender to a limp dishrag. When Hector coaches Diana, "I don't care who this guy is, don't be afraid to hurt him," it's natural to feel a gag reflex. When Adrian pathetically begs for Diana's respect, the vomit blasts forth.

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