Producers: Jeremy Garelick, Will Phelps, Molle DeBartolo, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon and Oz Rodriguez   Director: Oz Rodriguez    Screenwriters: Jason Concepcion and Shea Serrano   Cast: Tyler Dean Flores, Imani Lewis, Christian Vunipola, Suraj Partha, Raúl Castillo, Andrea Navedo, Dascha Polanco, Juan Abdias, Sarunas J. Jackson, Jordyn Owens, Collin Roach, Thomas Whitcomb and Alejandra Guevara   Distributor: Hulu

Grade: C+

Oz Rodriguez’s coming-of-age comedy is at once likeable but a little unsettling.  It’s basically about Miguel (Tyler Dean Flores), a high schooler trying to prove his loyalty to his long-time friends before having to leave town with his parents—a move he’s keeping secret from his buddies.  The title pretty much reveals how he hopes to do so, which is at the crux of the screenplay’s problem, which the filmmakers simply ignore by treating it as a sort of lark.

The four teens are an engaging bunch—the other three are David (Christian Vunipola), Cass (Imani Lewis) and Srini (Suraj Partha)—and the stream of genially insulting, competitive, casually crude, pop-culture-filled banter that Jason Concepcion and Shea Serrano provide them with has a ring of truth, especially since under Rodriguez’s knowing hand the quartet delivers it in convincingly unexaggerated, overlapping fashion.

But they’re living in a tough area of Syracuse, New York, and the occasions for them to get into scrapes with other groups of neighborhood kids appear to be numerous; it’s not before long that one breaks out at an outdoor basketball court.  While his friends are quick to react with punches and kicks, however, Miguel hangs back—which seems out of character, since not only is he an obsessive fan of martial arts movies (fights from which he lovingly recreates in short videos with his pals) but his dad Alberto (Raúl Castillo) runs a gym filled with boxers training for ring action.  But Alberto, a straight-arrow sort, impresses on the group early on that there’s a difference between boxing and fighting: the one is a sport with rules, while the other is just violence—a distinction that soon becomes an important plot point.

After their latest tussle, Miguel’s friends notice something they’ve implausibly overlooked until now—that he never gets into the action with them.  He hems and haws excuses, but while his closest buddy David—a brooding, serious sort whose own father, a boxer, is dead, leading Alberto to provide help to his family—comes to his defense, the others aren’t so understanding.  Simultaneously Alberto and Miguel’s mom Lydia (Andrea Navedo) announce that the family is moving to Albany—where she’s gotten a new job—next week. 

The news leaves Miguel in a quandary.  He wants to cement his camaraderie with his pals before he has to leave them behind, but how?  His rather far-fetched solution is to prove he’s no wimp to his father, and a real friend to his buddies, by getting into his first actual fight.  David isn’t so sure it’s a good idea, but Cass and Srini go for it, so long as he follows certain rules, like in boxing. It has to be with someone he knows, and who deserves it; he can’t throw the first punch; and he should steer clear of campus bully Damien Delgado (Juan Abdias).

The rest of the relatively short (barely seventy-five minute) movie involves Miguel trying to choose and opponent and getting him to start the fracas.  It proves difficult for the genial guy to identify somebody against whom he actually holds a grudge, but he does—like Adrian (Jordyn Owens), the jock who ridiculed him for having a boner, or Blake (Thomas Whitcomb), the snooty fellow who’s always making racist remarks, or Kevin (Collin Roach), who humiliated him by pointing out that the sneakers he was wearing were knockoffs of Air Jordans rather than the real thing.  At one point in desperation it’s even suggested that he face off against a girl named Claudia (Alejandra Guevara).

Rodriguez gets laughs by juxtaposing Miguel’s imagining about how each confrontation might go (done up with cartoonish martial-arts glee, though some go dark) with the actual encounter (sometimes presented as a televised event, complete with commentator), which always goes wrong in some way (Adrian, for example, has a broken arm, and Kevin makes friends by apologizing).  Inevitably he also gets into it with Delgado, though the result is that it gets him in trouble with his sympathetic teacher (Dascha Polanco). 

But though there’s occasional acknowledgement that fighting isn’t exactly the way to go (David’s objections, along with an amusing conversation Miguel has with Armando, an ex-convict pugilist played by Sarunas J. Jackson, who suggests that the kid might not be the good person he thinks he is), ultimately the movie sloughs off such concerns, and in fact ends with a brawl that brings the buddies together after a rough patch among them.

The picture also periodically adds some more serious notes, especially in a subplot in which David’s plea for Miguel’s help in studying for a SAT practice test gets lost in the boy’s determination to fight.  In the end, though, everything works out, and Miguel has learned important lessons about friendship and family.       

“Miguel Wants to Fight” is amiable and inventive, with Rodriguez and his collaborators—production designer Lauren Fitzsimmons, cinematographer Diana Matos, editors Adam Epstein and Daniel Reitzenstein, composer Rafael Lazzaro and graphics designer Monica Palmer—giving it a bouncy, eager-to-please vibe it’s hard to resist.  But its pizzazz and engaging young leads can’t entirely conceal that the movie conveys some mixed messages it never manages to sort out.