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Saturday, 30 September, 2000, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Seconds out for Girlfight
Girlfight stars Michelle Rodriguez and Santiago Douglas - picture courtesy of Screen Gems
Girlfight stars Michelle Rodriguez and Santiago Douglas
By BBC News Online's entertainment correspondent Tom Brook

Girlfight, a widely praised low budget film in which a New York teenage girl finds self esteem and love through boxing, faces its first critical test at the US box office this weekend.

Although the picture has been a huge hit on the festival circuit, winning awards at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, it is only now being seen by paying audiences.

The release of this gritty romantic drama in America comes just two weeks before its arrival in the UK.

The film's talented but virtually unknown cast, including leads Michelle Rodriguez and Santiago Douglas, turned out in force for the world premiere in New York to help promote the film.

Sulky teenager

Douglas was optimistic about the film's box office prospects.

Michelle Rodriguez with Jaime Tirelli - picture courtesy of Screen Gems
Rodriguez with Jaime Tirelli, who plays her doubting trainer Hector
"I have a wonderful feeling, like I did from the beginning, that it's going to do very well."

Rodriguez, 22, had very limited prior experience in acting.

She has won critical acclaim for her portrayal of Diana, a tough sulky Brooklyn teenager who finds boxing is her salvation.

The actress trained for four and a half months and put on extra weight to transform herself into a credible boxer.

It is through a dedication to boxing that her character develops the self-confidence to begin to confront many of her difficulties.

Diana's life is mired in poverty. She has an abusive father and a tentative romantic relationship with a male boxer who will not take her seriously as a contender because she is a woman.

By pursuing boxing she confounds stereotypes and sets herself on a course of personal liberation.

Dramatic change

At Girlfight's premiere Rodriguez said she hoped the film inspired people "not to listen to outside voices when you are trying to do something positive with yourself".

I didn't have a career before it so I guess it turned out pretty well

Girlfight star Michelle Rodriguez
Girlfight's success at festivals has brought a dramatic change to her life.

"I didn't have a career before it so I guess it turned out pretty well," said the actress, who has now landed screen roles in two high profile projects.

Santiago Douglas plays Diana's fellow boxer and love interest Adrian.

He has also benefited from the critical praise directed at Girlfight since it was screened at Sundance.

"Wonderful things have happened, I've worked on two movies, I'm producing another film," he said.

But Karyn Kusama, who wrote and directed Girlfight on a very modest $1m budget, did not seem overly interested by her new high-profile status.

Feminist picture

She was more eager to discuss the content of her film, which she sees as a feminist picture.

Michelle Rodriguez
Michelle Rodriguez trained for four and a half months for Girlfight
"Men and women alike are limited by the roles and expectations that culture and society impose on each other," she said.

"I believe we all suffer in this way and I hope the film indicates that perhaps there is another way."

One of Girlfight's principal backers is top American independent film-maker John Sayles.

Sayles knows favourable reviews alone are not going to lead to big box office.

"Always the trick with a small movie, and this is still a small movie, is getting enough people in, in the first couple of weeks, then the word of mouth starts going," he says.

Girlfight bears some resemblance to the current UK release Billy Elliot, in that both films deal with working class characters who defy gender expectations and break out via their physical pursuits.

Both are strong works, but to my mind what elevates Girlfight is that it never lapses into sentimentality.

It is clumsy at times, but it remains unvarnished and honest - and above all else an extremely tender-hearted love story.

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