'T-Rex': Film Review

T-Rex Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

T-Rex Still - H 2015

Shows good form but not a knockout 

Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari's documentary showcases a teenager striving for Olympic glory in women's boxing.

When women's boxing was added as a competitive category for the 2012 summer Olympics, the field was wide-open to potential contenders for the U.S. team, but the likelihood of an African-American teen qualifying for the squad seemed like a remote possibility. A scrappy doc profiling boxer Claressa "T-Rex" Shields' unlikely ascension to Olympic competitor, Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari's film exhibits some admirable virtues but faces limited opportunities beyond the film's public-broadcasting reach.

An Independent Lens release from PBS, T-Rex begins by studiously and sympathetically depicting Shields' impoverished roots growing up on the treacherous streets of economically marginalized Flint, MI, as the daughter of divorced, alcoholic mother Michelle and ex-con father Clarence. At only 16 yet the eldest of three kids, Shields is acutely aware that her exceptional fighting skills may be the only ticket out of town that her family may ever latch onto. Mentored by volunteer coach and former pro boxer Jason Crutchfield since she turned up at the local gym at age 11, middleweight Shields boasts an undefeated record as she heads into her Olympic qualifying round. Surprisingly, an unexpected loss at the 2012 World Championships works in her favor after a technical advance catapults her into a spot on the U.S. women's boxing team.

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In the run-up to the London Olympics, USA Boxing rules require Shields to train exclusively with the team's coaches, relegating Crutchfield to the sidelines for her Olympic bouts. Shields is by far the youngest and least experienced on the U.S. team, although the film spends scant time contextualizing the dynamics of the squad or the perspectives of her teammates. Similarly outclassed by her competitors, who are all older, taller and more experienced, Shields is forced to draw on substantial inner reserves of skill and determination to compete on an Olympic level, spurred on by her prime motivation: safeguarding the future of her family.

Sports enthusiasts will be familiar with the film's straightforward account of Shields' rise to Olympic contender, which was widely covered by the national print and broadcast media throughout her unpredictable, charismatic journey. "A coach always wants a champion," Crutchfield observes at one point. "I just never thought it was going to be a girl."

Many may find Shields' Million Dollar Baby-style tale personally relatable, and urban gyms could even see an influx of young women pursuing boxing and other pugilistic sports as the film receives Independent Lens support for community screenings nationwide. Inspiring as her journey may be, however, the film tracks an overly familiar arc, dwelling on Shields' disadvantaged background, teenage romance with another young boxer and family turmoil but providing limited focus on the sport of women's boxing or the complexities of obtaining training sponsorship or lucrative endorsements.

Filmmakers Cooper and Canepari take a DIY approach by assuming the essential directing, shooting and editing roles on the documentary, concentrating their interviews primarily on Shields, her family and her boxing community. Most of the fight sequences originate with other sources, interwoven with the Shields family's home videos and marginal video-diary segments shot by Claressa herself.

Production company: ZCDC

Directors: Drea Cooper, Zackary Canepari

Producers: Sue Jaye Johnson, Bianca Darville, Gary Kout, Drea Cooper, Zackary Canepari

Directors of photography: Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper

Editors: Jean Kawahara, Drea Cooper

Music: Matthew Joynt, Nathan Sandberg

No rating, 91 minutes