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Punch ★★★



Director: Welby Ings

Cast: Tim Roth, Jordan Oosterhof, Conan Hayes

Release: Glasgow Film Festival 2023

The sweeping scenery of a progressive New Zealand, a country that has suddenly become a hotspot, for fresh queer storytellers to mirror those societal advancements in cinema, which has been lagging in representation until now. Last year we were treated to Elz Carrad’s impassioned transgender activist Caz seeking reconciliation with his father in Rurangi. This film did an impeccable job of delivering a vital portrait of positive trans representation whilst smashing the gender binary regarding sexual attraction through Caz’s tender relationship with Arlo Green’s Jem.

Now time for director Welby Ings to step into the cinematic ring. Punch has a commendable sense of purpose in its exploration of fragile masculinity through the ferocious world of regional boxing that does frequently threaten to land an emotional knockout. But its reach can be hindered by the questionable choices made in the heat of battle.

In the blue corner, we find the chiselled physique of Jim (Jordan Oosterhof), whose career in this sport is brimming with promise. No wonder his tough-talking dad Stan (Tim Roth), is so heavily invested in his son’s future, looking to stave off the interest of other no-nonsense coaches. However, the low blows being delivered by his alcohol abuse exasperates his flagging health, leaving Jim emotionally winded.

Increasingly agitated by Stan’s hefty demands ahead of his first professional fight, he frantically runs across the beach. The opportunity to develop an unlikely relationship with unapologetic Maori misfit Whetu (Conan Hayes) is washed ashore and enamoured by his adorable dog and the shabby chic of his beach shack. These seeming opposites are gradually drawn together by the varying brutality peppered throughout their lives, enjoying being temporarily spared the harsh small-town mentality of what it means to be a man. As Whetu continuously jabs away at Jim’s defences. The latter begins questioning his sexuality, leaving him re-evaluating what is worth fighting about.

The film’s core strength is its tender romance between Jim and Whetu, captured in tight close-ups, befitting a hard-body aesthetic. Director Ings gradually opens the frame up as their freedom of expression through boxing and music complement each other. When the focus is solely on them wrestling with their feelings and tearing away at the thin veneer of ‘tolerance’ that barely hides the toxic traits of the men inflicting pain on them. There is clarity and intensity about their exchanges that leave you adequately invested in their struggle.

Frustratingly, for Punch, it tends to find itself on the ropes once it deviates narratively. Particularly in its father/son dynamic, the redemptive quality in Stan’s character arc in its transitions is far from smooth, not fully earning its intended resolution. Meanwhile, the parade of sketchy coaches lurking around is one-note, compounded by a troubling plot detail involving Whetu that feels wholly unnecessary. Occasionally the visual style does exacerbate these storytelling flaws. Whilst you appreciate the thinking behind Ings’ disorientating camerawork, mirroring perhaps that dazed look of a seasoned boxer at the business end of a fight, struggling to fully comprehend who they are and what they’re doing. As a cohesive piece, it can feel somewhat disjointed.

At least there’s absolute assurance in the well-intentioned performances, learning fast that waving rainbow flags and declarations of championing diversity can be wretched in their performative nature. Jordan Oosterhof brilliantly articulates Jim’s journey of self-discovery. There may be shortcuts taken in the character’s destination. Yet the hunched posture and subtlety of Tim Roth’s Stan befits a man who has put considerable weight on his shoulders to ensure Jim breaks out. Conan Hayes’ Whetu is the arguable standout, though, whose tenacious bite back at a world that has long left him isolated is consistently compelling to witness.

Punch could benefit from being more studied in its attack, but the collective efforts of its committed ensemble make it worth going a few rounds with.

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