No guy wants to get whipped by a girl. Girls want and deserve the same opportunities to excel as boys. Herein lies the crux of the conundrum in director Diane Zander’s intriguing, if flawed documentary, “Girl Wrestler.”
Tara Neal is the girl wrestler upon which this film is based. Twelve years old at the start of the film, Tara finds herself at a crossroads in her young life. On the one hand, she’s struggling in her wrestling career with things that once came easily. Boys that she routinely and easily used to beat are naturally getting bigger, faster, and stronger as they grow older. As a result, Tara has suddenly and unaccustomedly begun finding herself on the losing end of many of her wrestling matches. Throw in a growing awareness of her “femaleness” and a once-supportive father who’s morphed into the quintessential demanding, overly competitive “Little League Dad,” and Tara has started questioning her desire to continue wrestling.
On the other hand, however, she finds herself confronted with the cold, hard rule of the law. In Texas, you see, the good ol’ boys who run the high school sports programs deemed it unacceptable to watch their strapping young studs get their collective a***s kicked by unladylike girls they thought should be spending their time on their hair, not training to make weight. As such, they ruled that girls could no longer wrestle boys once they reached the age of fourteen. So while Tara may be questioning her own desire to wrestle, she’s frustrated that someone else is arbitrarily forbidding it.
“Girl Wrestler” has, at its core, a surprisingly provocative premise, while Tara is generally an effective, if somewhat laconic and under-enthusiastic, protagonist. However, there are problems with the film that revolve around its structure and especially its all-too-narrow scope.
Most of the film takes place at various wrestling matches throughout Texas and, later, California. While the action itself is decently shot, however, the progression from match to match and location to location is unclear. We never know how important any given sequence is to Tara. How can we watch her lose four matches in a row, say, and somehow have her then magically wrestling in the Nationals?
As for the larger socio-political issues, Zander never really shows us the players involved; never gives us a “bad guy” to despise for wreaking an injustice on women’s athletics. For that matter, no one in the film seems remotely interested in challenging the law, so why even bring it up in the first place?
“Girl Wrestler” is a lot like a Near Fall in wrestling; that point where one wrestler almost has another pinned, can’t quite get him (or her!) there, but earns points nonetheless for getting close. “Girl Wrestler” gets its subject in a Near Fall, only to have it pull a Reversal and get away.