SXSW Review: T-Rex

2012 was the first year Women’s Boxing was officially recognised at the Olympics. An undefeated female boxer, 17 year old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields from Flint, Michigan seized the opportunity, rising from fringe poverty to compete on the world stage in London.

On the surface T-REX is another formulaic doc of a rags to riches tale of determination to succeed against the odds. In this respect T- REX hits these markers the way Claressa lands blows, but just like Claressa herself, this film carries a whole other punch.

From the opening sequences we see we are watching a beautifully shot film, directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari’s background in high end commercials is on full show here, fusing superbly constructed, lit and shot set pieces following Claressa training and combining it with an intimate, subtle and personal approach more like home video.

But the star of the show here, what makes this film so powerful is Claressa herself. Her character simply radiates of the screen, she is wise beyond her years, is focused, dedicated and retains a remarkable sense of humour throughout. As if training for the Olympics wasn’t tough enough, her family set up is tumultuous, a complex relationship between her separated parents and respective partners and her younger sister who starts down a less positive path. Claressa comes across as the one person holding her family together, a role most teenagers could not comprehend, let alone achieve, especially with such grace.

The most vivid relationship in the film is between Claressa and her coach Jason. A former pro boxer, now cable repair man, who teaches neighbourhood kids boxing for free. He always wanted a champion, but never thought it would be a girl, but when he met Claressa when she was only 11 he knew the talent when he saw it. Jason acts as a coach, friend, mentor and a father figure to Claressa, but as she grows up and success looms bigger, this relationship comes under some painful duress.

When stripped back this is a story we’ve seen before in more or less every other boxing movie, but never has the central character been so young, so determined, so female(!), and more real. She deals with her personal issues the same way she deals in the ring, with determination and a clear understanding of what she is doing and why, all the time retaining a sense of humour and humility within her dogged determination.

When success comes (on both fronts) it does not lead to what she or her family or her coach envisioned. Here is where the film takes a final (and pivotal) turn in the third act, making this film more than a contemporary Rocky homage.

Claressa “T-Rex” Shields is a revelation, the movie T-REX is the perfect vessel to show her incredible, on going, story to the world. During one scene where she is meeting with representatives from Boxing USA to discuss sponsorship and endorsements, she is advised to change her image and watch what she says in interviews (she openly admits she got in to boxing because she enjoyed hitting people), her reaction of defiance is so pure in her youth, innocence and bad-ass persona it hits like a knockout blow. The term ‘inspirational’ is thrown about a lot, but here it truly applies.