Review: Buffalo Girls

Todd Kellstein's film about eight-year-old Thai girl boxers answers our questions, but isn't one of the great fight documentaries.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I thought this would be an easy review to write. It’s 8-year-old Thai girl boxers, so that sounds monstrous, right? But if they made a documentary about it, it probably ends up being empowering. Then I was reminded we have children’s competitive martial arts in the U.S. too, so why do Thai pre-teens conjure up such conflicted emotions? Maybe because Muay Thai seems like a more brutal fighting form, but then we’re splitting hairs. Why is a karate kick to the face easier to watch than a Muay Thai knee to the head? Buffalo Girls answers my questions about the child boxing industry, but rather than incite my passion one way or the other, it just left me indifferent.

We meet Stam and Pet, two young competitors from different backgrounds. Stam’s father was a Muay Thai champ himself, but Pet’s parents are regular folks just struggling to get by and encouraging their daughter. When the film focuses on the fighters, it makes a pretty strong case that these are capable professionals who don’t need our sympathy or pity.

Man, these two work out hardcore, like doing some Rocky Balboa sit-ups. Stam and Pet are impressive and the fights don’t look that brutal, I mean except for the eight-year-olds kicking each other and all. Seriously, they look like surgical, scientific, expert exchanges of blows, the kind of fights that end by decision, not knockout. I mean, am I totally rationalizing that it’s okay because of precision? Or is it condescending to even think that we need stop this, for the children?

The parents say they don’t worry their daughters will get hurt, because they’re in good shape. That sounds a bit negligent, but they’ve lived with their daughters so they know their abilities. Here I am some American watching them for 10 minutes and coming up with judgments. Training has actually improved Pet’s health and the money from winnings is helping both families.

I got all my answers from the film, so why aren’t I more enthused? It’s sort of a cold presentation of data. Even with the training montages and fight footage, the athletes are impressive themselves but the footage is like a clinical study. The girls don’t really tell their story, which could have been a problem with language barriers or just having very young subjects, but the result is that it feels like an assortment of soundbites and event footage, but not a journey with the families. Any number of documentary techniques could have filled in the gaps – narration, graphics, etc. – but the aesthetic of pure, raw footage just wasn’t quite enough for me.

To illustrate that disconnect, one moment in Buffalo Girls comes out of nowhere, when Pet’s parents send her away due to their financial troubles. I’m sure it blindsided the filmmakers too, but there had to be a way to build up to it so we could sense the family’s situation was getting so desperate. At least get some interviews and illustrate with some stock footage how it got to the point where they couldn’t keep their daughter at home. As it stands, it seems like a moment in which we’re supposed to have our heartstrings tugged just be virtue of what we’re seeing. On top of sending Pet away, her father is injured in an automobile accident and he misses his daughter. That is inherently emotional, and I want Pet to visit her daddy. I don’t think that was the right moment in the film for it. It wasn’t earned by building a father/daughter relationship.

Buffalo Girls is not one of the great fight documentaries but the subject may just be interesting enough to warrant a single viewing. A movie like Fightville was able to balance many different MMA hopefuls and build to a rousing conclusion, with some suspense midway through too. Buffalo Girls relies on just showing us the fights and the families, but needs a bit more structure. However, if either Stam or Pet star in Ong Bak 4, I’m there.


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel