Imagine that your whole life has been conditioned and developed so that you’d become one specific type of person, who fits the mold that your family and environment want you to. What happens when you realize that you’re a square peg in a round hole, and that everything you’ve been taught does not correlate with how you feel? Most people repress this and continue on as expected, fighting their identity, boxing the mirror while they live the life others expect them to.
This is the essential dilemma of Punch, a sensitive new film from New Zealand and the first feature-length film from director Welby Ings. In it, Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) is a ferocious fighter in immaculate shape, sacrificing many facets of youth so that he can dedicate himself to boxing. This was his father’s plan; Stan is his coach, but also a sullen alcoholic who is quietly but stubbornly persistent in his son’s training. Played by Tim Roth, the character is a tragedy in motion. The two men drift apart as Jim discovers new avenues of his own identity thanks to a new friend, Whetu (Conan Hayes). The result is a poetic, sad, and moving little film about coming to terms with your own identity.
Punch Is About a Young Boxer Fighting Expectations
Punch is set in a very small beach town in New Zealand where Jim lives alone with his father, Stan. Jim is preparing for his biggest fight yet, with Stan training him extensively in their makeshift gym attached to the house. Through a prosaic, patient first act, the film follows the young man as he trains, spends time with his friends and girlfriend, jogs on the beach, and argues with his father. Jim is the stereotypical jock, the popular kid surrounded by lesser tiers of popular kids in a hierarchy of masculinity. His testosterone is unleashed when he fights, but despite this and his social acceptance, he is a somewhat sensitive and more compassionate person than his peers.
Eventually, he comes into the orbit of Whetu, an ostracized and angrily bullied teenager at their school. Whetu keeps to himself and, despite his anger toward the world, has fundamentally learned how to enjoy his own company and be at peace with himself as he prepares to leave the small town for good. When Whetu helps Jim one day at the beach, applying first aid to his jellyfish stings, Jim is introduced to the extremely cool beach shack that Whetu built by himself. An admiration, respect, and gratitude blossoms from Jim, who begins an honest friendship with Whetu that is divorced from all the testosterone-fueled expectations of Jim’s normal relationships.
Unfortunately, Jim’s widened perspective doesn’t change the hate-stained perception of other people in the town, and Whetu becomes the target of vicious bullying. Through poetic, shaky cinematography and quiet, touching sound design and music, the film details the challenges that both young men face when they push back against the traditional system. Jim is different from his friends, and he can’t change them, so accepting his own identity means destroying his friendships and relationships, no matter how phony they are. Oosterhoff is excellent as the young boxer, who struggles with all these challenges as he still prepares for the big fight.
Strong Characters Despite Tired Tropes
While Oosterhoff spent a lot of time boxing in preparation, sometimes training for hours a day, five days a week, Punch isn’t exactly a boxing film; it’s more Call Me by Your Name than Creed. It certainly does feature realistic boxing sequences (and a very fit Oosterhoff), but if anything, Punch is an anti-boxing film. Boxing becomes correlated with bullying in Punch, with all the male rage, gendered stereotypes, and repressed bitterness that comes with it. Ultimately, it’s Jim’s journey to decide whether he wants to be a boxer (and fight against his own identity) or not (and stop fighting, accepting himself).
Hayes is great as Whetu, a liberated, queer, but still troubled youth who avoids all the family connections and suffocating systems of his small town. He always stands up for himself, even if it could ruin him to do so, and he always speaks his mind. The kind of loose freedom Whetu exudes is truly infectious; he’s a great character, and it’s understandable that he unlocks something in Jim and allows him to see a part of himself he never had before.
Their friendship is really fascinating to explore and often beautiful in Punch. However, the film often succumbs to the clichés of romantic dramas, or even the boxing films it subverts. Feel-good moments, romantic subplots, and brazen gestures occasionally feel too much like traditional, tired tropes that shouldn’t belong in such a poetic, freewheeling, and rebellious film.
The Great Tim Roth and a Young Cinematographer Make Punch Powerful
Roth, however, doesn’t come from any other film; his performance as Stan is one of the best aspects of Punch, and one of its most magnetic characters. He doesn’t speak much, but Roth works wonders with the lack of dialogue, imbuing a bevy of fatigue, guilt, love, and stubbornness into Stan even if he isn’t running his mouth with a stunning monologue. He’s frail but also hard; pitiable but with a quiet dignity; loving but hopeless. There’s a whole world behind his character; perhaps Punch would’ve been better had it explored him more, or maybe the elements of unknown mystery make him more interesting.
Matt Henley’s cinematography is frequently stunning, whether he’s filming someone streaking on the beach or two people beating the pulp out of each other in the boxing ring. The comparisons to director Terrence Malick’s films are apt, but Henley also brings to mind a quieter variation on the great and recently departed Oliver Wood. Wood infuriated many with his shaky cam aesthetic, but stunned many more, and he arguably changed the action genre with the Bourne films and his earlier work on Die Hard 2 and Face/Off. Henley, though relatively new, has a similarly unbalanced style, but one that is more sensitive to motion and color, and the results are beautifully understated, poetically aimless visuals.
Punch is extremely personal to its director, but beyond Ings, it will feel deeply relatable to anyone who has ever discovered that they are not who everyone wanted them to be. Punch may fall victim to some of the sentimental tropes which plague many dramas, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very beautiful and deeply moving, especially if you’re a square peg living in a round world. Produced by Blueskin Films and Robin Murphy Productions, Punch is now in theaters courtesy of Dark Star Pictures, and is also available to rent on digital and On Demand platforms.