Remember Girlfight, the indie drama about an underprivileged young woman who becomes a boxer? Well, in Thailand, “girlfight” is more literal, in that actual 8-year-old girls step into the ring as professionals, and try to beat the crap out of each other, while an arena full of screaming adults bets on the outcome. Todd Kellstein’s documentary Buffalo Girls follows two of those kids—Stam and Pet—as they train and compete, pushed by parents who need the money. According to Buffalo Girls’ opening crawl, in Thailand, “buffalo” can be slang for “strong,” but it’s also a derogatory term, aimed at poor farmers eking out a living. Buffalo Girls applies the word in both ways to these brave young boxers, who likely wouldn’t be punching and kicking each other if their families weren’t so strapped for baht.
Buffalo Girls’ main problem is that Kellstein can’t seem to settle on whether he’s making an inspirational sports movie (complete with triumphant music on the soundtrack during the fights), or an exposé of child exploitation among the Thai underclass. Even if it’s the latter, Kellstein could easily be accused of exploiting his subjects himself, given how much of Buffalo Girls focuses on Stam and Pet in the ring, and given how emotional—and bruised—these girls are when they finish a fight. Kellstein gives viewers more or less the same show that the fans and gamblers get.
Buffalo Girls excels in capturing the anthropological details of this sport: the weigh-ins, the head-shaving, the donning of the pink boxing gear, and the way all the grandparents and aunts come to watch matches, as if they were especially violent elementary-school plays. But Buffalo Girls lacks a strong perspective on what it’s documenting. It’s heartbreaking to see Pet forced into a fight she isn’t ready for, and to see her get shipped off to the country when her father gets injured and can’t support the family. And it’s moving to see Stam help her parents move into a nice new house. But there’s a scene at the start of Buffalo Girls when an interviewer asks the girls, “Why do you want to box?” and they can’t come up with a good answer. A similar question could be asked of Kellstein: “Why did you want to make this movie?”