THE STORY – Jim is preparing for his first professional fight but begins to rethink his life’s trajectory and his sexuality after tangling with Whetu, a gay Maori boy who spends his days in an old shack down by the beach.
THE CAST – Tim Roth, Jordan Oosterhof & Conan Hayes
THE TEAM – Welby Ings (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
There was a time when witnessing stories told from a queer perspective was not commonplace. It was a rare occurrence that served select audiences and only rarely would make an impact with a more general crowd. As attitudes shift and accessibility broadens, such encounters have become more commonplace, as are the complexity and nuances that can be afforded to such efforts. In some ways, “Punch” represents a blending of two worlds, a throwback to familiar archetypes molded into a modern setting to make them appear relevant to our current times. However, the ultimate results become a mostly pedestrian affair that struggles to make a distinctive mark.
Set in a tiny New Zealand town, Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) is hard at work training for an upcoming boxing match. He’s being coached under the guidance of his father (Tim Roth), but their strained relationship is pushed further into dysfunction due to years of alcohol abuse. While on a run at a deserted beach, Jim crosses paths with Whetu (Conan Hayes), an out gay boy from his school who receives endless taunts from the neighborhood. At first, antagonism stands between them, but soon the two become more familiar and bond through friendship. It doesn’t take long before Jim realizes this relationship means more than just casual comradery, and both must soon decide where they may truly find happiness in an uncertain future.
One senses a quiet intimacy that writer-director Welby Ings intends to fashion. The story bears hallmarks of those that came before, and in a way, it’s endearing how the questioning discovery of youthful sexuality comes across as resonant even today. Unfortunately, another aspect this film shares with those predecessors is the mundane presentation dependent on tiresome tropes. The characters all fill predictable roles without much to grant them any sense of nuance. While no one would argue that the most toxic forms of homophobia have been eradicated, the display here is so reductive and shallow that it would seem more in place with a period piece than this contemporary landscape. The characters have little unique definition, circling a stale romantic entanglement, and the narrative unfolds with sluggish momentum. This leads to an abrupt, anti-climactic ending that is incredibly unfulfilling.
Sadly, the two leads aren’t particularly captivating either. More credit should be given to Hayes for actually managing to create a somewhat compelling portrait. One is taken by the defiant pride that fights against this community’s intolerance and has an easily infectious charm. It’s a shame he’s given a shallow arch, made worse by the indulgence of an escalation in violence that felt exploitative and unearned and pushes him out a large section of the film. However, he is a much more welcomed presence than Oosterhof. While never explicitly bad, his performance is simply generic and unremarkable, elements that are not engaging when called to anchor an entire film. The greatest travesty is seeing Roth inhabit a dull character that is never interesting to witness. There are a few fleeting moments that briefly showcase an attempt at more layered work. Still, when Roth can’t even be bothered to rid his native English accent among the sea of Kiwi dialects, it’s difficult not to feel some distance with his portrayal.
Undoubtedly, the earnestness that runs throughout “Punch” will be alluring to many. However, its construction is far too bland and common to become anything more than a hollow exercise. The storytelling never breaks free from the constraints of the expected outcomes, and while some performances offer a glimmer of fascinating characterization, their effectiveness is hindered by the weak material. The filmmaking is stately but mostly unexceptional, and the final outcome is notably forgettable. Part of existing in a tapestry of diverse stories is that not all of them will be rich endeavors, which, sadly, this is a definition this one fits.