Movie Review: Fight Like a Girl

A scene from Fight Like a Girl.

Filmmaker Jill Morley found herself irresistibly drawn to boxing, much like the four other women whose stories are interwoven in this documentary. The film spans a five year period in the lives of athletes of various ages and levels of expertise, as they each struggle to overcome their own mental and physical hurdles.

When asked to review this film, the first thing I did was perform a Google search, which yielded a trailer for “From Parts Unknown: Fight Like a Girl”. Although it had female boxers in it, something tipped me off that I had the wrong movie. Perhaps it was the terrible quality, Australian accents or the fact the boxers quickly became zombies. I had quite the relieved giggle upon realizing my error. Somehow this made me pause and contemplate, what exactly am I expecting?

Having been unlucky lately with three documentaries in a row which all disappointed me (you know it’s bad when I’m inventing new insults, namely “focumentary”). So I was going in to this quite skeptical. Was this going to be another case of fiction, opinion and exaggeration. posing as fact? To boot, I admittedly was part of the “Why would people actually want to fight?” school of thought. Well, now I think I have at least a better understanding.

On a surface level, Fight Like a Girl delivers a well-rounded run-down of the history of women’s boxing, and a solid understanding of the struggles female boxers face today, both financially and in terms of being taken seriously as the world-class athletes that they are. Stereotypes and societal expectations – from “You’re a pretty girl, why would you want to get hit?” to “Why don’t you just play tennis?” – are addressed, but never glossed over, nor is boxing glorified.

In fact the film succeeds most in this area; in examining, with brutal honesty, the psychology of why these women entered the sport, why they are virtually obsessed with it, and what mental obstacles stand in the way of their goals. You really don’t have to like boxing, or any sport for that matter, to enjoy this profound and thoughtful look at human behavior. What works most is the fact that it is so completely unscripted. Morley is unafraid to stick a camera in someone’s face and confront them with a tough, unexpected question, thus getting the most honest reaction and answer.

Morley narrates, as we follow her progress from the early stages of training towards an aggressive target of fighting in the Golden Gloves championship. While she pushes herself hard physically, the emotional endurance is where she gets stuck. Boxing appears to either trigger, or worsen, an intense anxiety stemming from her childhood abuse at the hands of her mother. Diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Morley seeks advice from her husband, therapist and her supportive fellow boxers.

I would have liked to have seen a more clear explanation of how/when this issue resurfaced from her past. The film begins with her already describing this sense of withdrawing into herself when in the ring, haunted by her past of being hit by her mom. Did this just get triggered now? Was it on her mind before? Or was she in denial about it? These questions are never addressed, which is unfortunate.

Also unfortunate is the fact that yes, even though her former trainer was jerky in how he said it, Morley does come off self-pitying at times, which is not helped by some melodramatic symbolic imagery used, such as cuts of her floating dead-like in a pool. That being said, no one can’t truly judge what depression does to a person, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Having known depression sufferers, I felt she articulated what she was going through with a bravery and candor that rings true. The comments and advice of Morley’s utterly sweet and sincere husband Gary will feel very familiar to anyone who has supported a loved one through years of devastating depression.

As forward-thinking as we, as a society, want to think we are, depression is still very much a taboo. If you disagree, just think for a moment about how well the subject goes over in a job interview, at a cocktail party, or on an insurance form. For this reason alone, the film should be applauded – for shining a spotlight on a true and real account of how it can drag a person into a downward spiral, and how incredibly hard it can be to fight your way back up to the surface.

A history of depression also haunts Maureen Shea, another boxer who also suffered domestic violence. Beaten by a former boyfriend, she too turned to boxing, as a way to empower herself and channel her emotions into an outlet that, albeit physical, could be controlled. Unlike “newbie” Morley, Shea is an established professional boxer. Her challenge is to get past the label of being Hilary Swank’s sparring partner for Million Dollar Baby, to make a name for herself in her own right and become a world champion.

Another commonality is that Morley and another boxer, Kimberly Tomes, both were once strippers. What each woman began for easy money and a sense of empowered sexiness, quickly turned dark and detrimental to their lives. After being punched by a customer, Tomes turned to boxing. She is a strong professional boxer, but stuck in the rut of having lost too many fights in a row, which have shattered her confidence. Enter her new coach, world champion Melissa Hernandez, who prides herself on bringing out the best in other women boxers.

Susan Merlucci is a 34 year-old boxer who, like the other women, expresses a sense of bottled rage that needs to come out. Her loving boyfriend is another example that shows the film does not seek to demonize men, nor family relationships. Rather it describes the experiences of pain that shape people’s lives, in order for us to appreciate how hard they work to move forward. By the time the women each reach the fight they have been training for, we want to cheer each of them on.

This is not an oversimplified “men are bad” militant feminist rant. It’s a snapshot in time, of five very different people, passionately engrossed in a sport that challenges every stereotype of what a woman is thought to be. A sport many women only dream they had the courage to try. But it’s also an insightful look into the inner workings of the mind in general (whether female or male), and an examination of the human condition.

The film wisely acknowledges that depression, aggression and fear are not things that can simply be “fixed”. They are lifelong journeys, where we falter along the way, and no path is a clear or simple one. The five women show true strength in their incredibly candid admission of their flaws; taking ownership of their issues and never giving up. The film does not sugar-coat complexities, glamorize women’s boxing, nor provide easy answers.

The truth and sincerity of Fight Like a Girl, and these remarkable women, surpasses the film’s minor flaws. It’s a fascinating look at the mental toughness we need to build, not only in the psychology of sport, but to be able to triumph in our lives in general.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Not yet rated
Cast: Jill Morley, Maureen Shea, Kimberly Tomes, Susan Merlucci, Melissa Hernandez
Directed by: Jill Morley

Top image: A scene from Fight Like a Girl. Courtesy of fightlikeagirlthemovie.com.

Isabel Cupryn

About Isabel Cupryn

Isabel Cupryn is a freelance writer and film blogger in Toronto.