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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Punch ****

Starring: Tim Roth, Jordan Oosterhof, Conan Hayes

Director: Welby Ings

Country: New Zealand

In rural New Zealand, young boxer Jim (Oosterhof) is preparing for his first professional fight. His alcoholic father (Roth - Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight) never fulfilled his own dreams in the ring, so is pushing his teenage son hard to become what he couldn’t. While out training, Jim meets Whetu (Hayes), a gay Maori boy with whom he shares an instant connection. Even though they are from vastly different walks of life, Jim begins to realise that they have more in common than he thought as they spend their days in Whetu’s beach hut, avoiding Jim’s father.

A gay coming-of-age film about boxing is a pretty hard pitch, but by placing Jim counterpoint to Whetu, a boy far more recognisable to LGBT+ people, this looks and feels much more accessible. Of course there are training sequences and the inevitable climactic match, but laden as they are with Jim’s personal journey, the depiction of boxing’s toxic masculinity is depicted from a completely different angle.

Whetu is artistic, flamboyant and expressive, which has been the source of much derision and cruelty from his classmates. Jim’s razor-focused physical prowess initially scares him off as he sees it as the moniker of his oppressors. But Whetu quickly sees that while they might be wholly different people on the outside, inside they are the same.

This is Jim’s story, depicting the countless histories of people who don’t fit the traditional mould of what it’s thought a gay man looks like. Oosterhof is resplendent in the role, finding a nurturing warmth within a young man treated with indelible coldness at home. We see many training sequences, with his body pushed to its physical limits, his mind subjected to constant provocation. But it’s his moments of warmth, demonstrating real compassion and empathy, that this character really comes alive. And as he slowly understands his sexuality, he sees that there is more power in these qualities than in his physical strength.

Tim Roth gives sturdy support as Jim’s father, with much more to this overbearing figure than just his penchant for booze. His relationship with Jim becomes the crux of the narrative in the final act, so the director has had his pound of flesh from this Hollywood star’s supporting role.

Jim is the Gen Z Everyman within his isolated community. This is one where hypermasculine brutes drive their trucks to buy six-packs and crush the cans against their skulls. Jim should have been a part of that world, but what makes this film so pleasing is to see a young man - masculine, boyish and strong - opt for the softness he finds in a rustic hut, hidden from the harsh world outside. This contrast is what really makes this film. Drenched in the cold light of the seashore, these two opposites find themselves in each other. And alongside them, we fall in love with them both.

UK Release: 13th November 2023 on VOD and DVD, released by Peccadillo Pictures


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