Recovering from a very public defeat is not an easy thing. Those who fight for a living are bound to encounter setbacks, but there are degrees to which a loss is infinitely more significant and potentially telling of an impacted future. Rebounding and returning to the ring requires a great deal of work and perseverance, and the biggest hurdle may be building up the emotional courage to try again, determined to create a different outcome in an equally or even more challenging situation. That notion serves as the core of Bruised, a deeply personal look at redefinition and resilience.
Jackie Justice (Halle Berry) is an MMA fighter whose brutal loss has led her to leave the ring. Working as a maid and engaging in an unhealthy relationship with her manager, Desi (Adan Canto), Jackie is pushed to get back in the game in an underground fight. When she is noticed by promoter Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), Jackie begins training with Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) and Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to get back in shape. Her already uphill comeback is complicated by the arrival of her young, silent son Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.), newly in her life after the unexpected death of his father.
This film’s premise is far from original, and it’s the kind of return-to-grace story that has been seen many times before. Jackie has many obstacles to success, including an indulgence in alcohol and a broken sense of self that limits her ability to believe in her own accomplishments. Manny is evidently resentful of her for not being a part of his life until it was absolutely necessary, but he is also a child mourning the death of his father and struggling to connect with a mother who just doesn’t know how to be there for someone she wasn’t prepared to parent.
What makes this film stand out from others that have come before it is the involvement of Berry, an actress who won an Oscar twenty years ago for her performance in Monster’s Ball. Berry initially read a script that didn’t feature a protagonist that looked at all like her but made the effort to rework it so that she could play the lead role and bring all of herself to it. She also tried to find the right director and ultimately settled on herself, making her directorial debut with a project involving many women of color in roles behind the camera. It’s clear from watching this that this was a labor of love for Berry.
As Jackie, Berry is sympathetic and watchable, though her journey is far from smooth or easy. She’s well-supported by a cast that includes Canto as a slimy and manipulative influence and Adriane Lenox as Jackie’s mother, whose relationship with her adult daughter has many problematic qualities. Among the standouts in the ensemble are Atim, who makes Buddakhan respectable and strong but also exposes a more intimate and vulnerable side of the no-nonsense trainer, and Boyd, a superb young find making his film debut after several notable TV roles.
Bruised tells its story within the world of fighting as entertainment, a space that may not be inviting to all audiences due to its violent and unforgiving nature. But its narrative is more universal, that of someone who has considerable demons and wants nothing more than to be able to conquer them. The gradually built relationship between Jackie and Manny is particularly endearing to watch as it takes shape, and it’s also nice to see the warm environment of support that manifests around Jackie in those who just want to see her succeed, even if she isn’t sure she can. As an affirming and inspirational tale of success, Bruised manages to accomplish its objective.
Bruised made its world premiere at the AFI Fest on November 13th. The film opens in select theaters on November 17th before debuting on Netflix on November 24th.