“Punch” is a gritty yet warm Kiwi coming-of-age drama about boxing, machismo and teenaged sexual identity and discovery. Its subject matter predicts the genre cliches it can’t avoid. But some novel twists, artfully unfussy direction, sensitive performances and a strong sense of place — small town New Zealand — make it a winner.
Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) is the fighter, 17 years-old, a working class kid dutifully trained and managed by his Dad (Tim Roth), who has his eyes on the prize — Jim’s “first professional fight.”
So keep to your training. No staying up all night editing music videos out of frolics with his friends, no messing about, pre-bout with his cute girlfriend (Abigail Laurent), who calls him a “tease” for not putting out.
Jim’s a solitary sort, given to naked jogs through the volcanic sand dunes near home. That’s where he runs into another loner. Whetu (Conan Hayes) lives in a shack near the water with his dog. They’re high school classmates, but don’t hang out together. Whetu is half-Maori, and a hustler. He turns tricks for money in public restrooms to get by. His classmates gossip about it. A local cop calls him “Tiffany,” as if he’s called him that before.
So this first encounter with Jim, off campus and in the buff, is a tad awkward.
But we get a sense that Jim is a bit more empathetic and kind than his “butch” classmates. And when he wades into the surf, playing with a drone, and gets stung by jellyfish, he’s lucky there’s someone who hears his screams and comes to his aid. No, neither of them is a fan of “Friends,” since you’re wondering.
To Jim, Whetu is the natural man, living on his own, relishing the fact that “I keep the world at a distance.” Whetu marvels at Jim’s artistic side and his Dad’s insistence that his boy box.
“This whole f—-n’ town REEKS of testosterone.”
A friendship forms, which is one of the ways Jim takes his eye off his “prize,” and the rest of his life. Dad’s too old to be working as a laborer at a cement mill. He’s sick, too. But damned if he isn’t going to get his kid ready for his professional debut.
“Dad, I’ve got a life.” “Not any more, you ain’t. You’re a boxer.“
The melodramatic touches include the father’s hidden illness, Whetu’s love of singing and songwriting and his bitchy defiance in the face of gay-shaming at school, gay-bashing off campus.
No potential same sex romance could begin without boys-being-boys roughhousing.
And no fight picture would be complete without a “dirty (rival) manager” trying to steer the kid away from his old man and into a career he’s not really sure he wants.
Writer-diector Welby Ings’ debut feature may traffic in those tropes. But he keeps his focus on the central characters, leaving few of their story threads unstitched as he allows the rest of the cast to quietly melt into the naturalistic background.
Roth’s signing on the dotted line got the picture made, and he gives his latest rock-solid turn in support as an aging, sickly alcoholic racing against the clock to try and make something of his kid, not really up to the task.
That gives our promising leads the spotlight and their first ever starring roles, and Oosterhof and Hayes don’t disappoint. These are nuanced performances, characters with a soft center but an edge they make certain to trot out when challenged or threatened.
Ings and his stars ensure that “Punch” turns out to be a lot more than a working New Zealand vacation for Roth, and a boxing picture with enough more interesting stuff going on that time in the ring is almost a dramatic afterthought.
Rating: unrated, violence, sex, alcohol abuse, marijuana and profanity
Cast: Jordan Oosterhof, Conan Hayes, Abigail Laurent, Karl Willetts and Tim Roth
Credits: Scripted and directed by Welby Ings. A Darkstar release.
Running time: 1:39