Docs and Female Jocks in the Ring at Sundance

More than ever a meat market for the industry, Sundance 2000 nevertheless shined its lights on some remarkable and not easily mainstreamed talent. To be sure, most of the films that screened from January 20 to 30 in a cold but almost snow-free Park City were as cliché-ridden and sentimental as any TV movie-of-the week—and that includes Kenneth Lonergan's much buzzed-about You Can Count on Me, which was barely redeemed by Mark Ruffalo's smoldering performance. You Can Count on Mesplit the grand prize in the dramatic competition with Karyn Kusama's more focused and punchy Girlfight. Kusama also won the best director award.

A character study of a teenage Latina from Red Hook with a passion for boxing, Girlfight succeeds because of the collaboration between Kusama and Michelle Rodriguez, the magnificent novice actor who answered an open audition notice in Back Stage and won the role of a lifetime. Girlfight begins with a shot of Rodriguez staring down the camera, looking like a dead ringer for the young Marlon Brando—same mocking twist to the mouth, same appraising eyes that narrow from the bottom rather than the top, same defiant stance, and, most astonishing, the same power to make time and space her own, to mold them with the intensity of her presence.

In real life, Rodriguez is more outgoing and much less burly than she appears on the screen, but the Brando resemblance is just as striking. She grew up in Jersey City, where she still lives with her mother, dropped out of school in the ninth grade, got her GED, and educated herself in the library. She describes herself as antiauthority and it's evident that she knows her own mind and likes to express it. Prior to Girlfight, she did extra work in a bunch of films and studied acting for a month. Although she's always been a tomboy, she never boxed before trying out for the film.

Girlfight's Rodriguez: "Karyn [Kusama] saw the animalistic side of me come out."
photo: Henny Garfunkel
Girlfight's Rodriguez: "Karyn [Kusama] saw the animalistic side of me come out."

"Karyn didn't pick me one, two, three. I read a couple of times, then they stuck me in the gym, and after a week they said I was ready to spar. Karyn saw the animalistic side of me come out in the ring. I trained for four and a half months. Now they want me to go pro, but I'm not into competition and I don't like all the egos flying around. I think the film puts out a pretty good message, though, that you can flip it over and still keep your femininity. People say that stereotypes aren't out there anymore, but they are. When I was boxing, I kept thinking that guys were going to take me for a butch."

Two days after Sundance, Rodriguez is in the New York office of Girlfight producers Sarah Green and Maggie Renzi, sorting though stacks of messages from agents, lawyers, and the entertainment press. "I got a taste of middle-class Hollywood at Sundance. Now I'm being offered these girls in the military parts, but I don't want to send that message—you go in the army, you get brainwashed, you die. I think I could pull off a reversal from Girlfight. I'm a chameleon. I like to fit in." Acquired by Screen Gems after a minor bidding war (in the absence of the ailing Harvey Weinstein, the business of buying and selling films continued apace, but without the flamboyance of past years), Girlfightis scheduled for a late-summer opening.

Girlfight wasn't the only women-in-sports movie at Sundance 2000. Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love and Basketball, which played out of competition, is a more mainstream but no less captivating film about a female athlete who breaks down barriers, not only in the gym but on the romance front as well. In both films, the heroine falls in love with the guy with whom she's most competitive. But while heterosexual competition is a turn-on for the woman, it's a problem for the man. Hence the plot: Girl gets boy; girl loses boy to a more traditionally femme rival; girl goes one-on-one with boy and wins everything—the match and his heart.

If Girlfight coincides with the inauguration of gender-blind amateur boxing, Love and Basketball, which spans 15 years from 1981 to 1996, achieves its happy ending thanks to the founding of the WNBA. But both films are also metaphors for the struggle of their directors to achieve parity in an outrageously male-dominated industry. In past years, less than 15 percent of the films at Sundance were directed by women. This year, the women's share rose to nearly 40 percent. Whether this is a trend or a fluke is yet to be determined.

Prince-Bythewood, a high school jock who turned to filmmaking at UCLA, developed Love and Basketball in the Sundance labs. After searching unsuccessfully for a female hoopster who could be emotionally convincing on the screen, she cast actress Sanaa Lathan in the lead role of an upper-middle-class African American who, all her life, has dreamed of being the first woman in the NBA. Having trained for nearly a year, Lathan is even more convincing on the court than her love interest in the film, Omar Epps, who had real-life playground basketball experience to draw on. New Line, which financed the film, plans to release it in April. But before that, Prince-Bythewood has to make a painful decision. The MPAA, which gave ample evidence this past summer of its sexual double standard, is threatening to give Love and Basketball an R rating unless most of the crucial scene in which the Lathan and Epps characters make love for the first time is cut. The scene—which is tender and not at all graphic, but unusual in that it focuses on Lathan's reactions—is crucial to the love story. But if the film gets an R, young teenage girls—the viewers for whom Prince-Bythewood provides a role model—will not be able to see it. It's a dilemma that a Sundance success can't resolve.

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