In the rough-hewn documentary "Buffalo Girls," director Todd Kellstein trains his camera on two 8-year-olds in Thailand's underground Muay Thai prizefighting circles who beat other kids for money as they work their way up from rural matches to bigger bouts.
Some 30,000 children are involved in this world, Kellstein found, and his unflinching approach to the brutality gives the film an unusual energy even as it makes the fighting seem oddly normal — or at the very least gives some sense of the cultural landscape in which this could be acceptable.
Kellstein's debut feature-length documentary, "Buffalo Girls" was shot in remote locations, and it's mainly fighting, interviews and scattered fly-on-the-wall moments without any real sense of overarching style or even point-of-view. In some ways, the film feels simply like a messed-up vacation video, as if Kellstein walked into a fight and then stuck around as he tried to understand what he saw — asking questions of the parents, referees, gamblers and young fighters. Underlining it all is the exuberance and charm of the two main subjects, who make this world seem disarmingly innocent.
It's hard not to be moved by the beaming face of a young girl excited that the prize money she earned helped put her family into a new, better house. Except that the winnings came from punching and kicking another child. It's difficult to say if Kellstein's approach to these difficult cultural dilemmas is meant to leave the audience to decide for themselves or if he can't figure it out either.
"Buffalo Girls." Not rated. 1 hour, 4 minutes. At the Laemmle Noho 7.