Mardi Gras Film Festival 2023 Review: Punch ★★★1/2

New Zealand filmmaker Welby Ings’ debut feature, Punch, lives up to its title with some powerful drama, stunning visuals, and a sexy subject.

Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) is a rising boxer on the eve of his first professional fight, trained by his father (Tim Roth). Their lives are lived in service to Jim’s boxing career with near constant training and harsh discipline ruling Jim’s life. Like any teenager, he’s buckling under the pressure, and his dual desire to win and to have the freedom of a regular life. The girls at school love to watch him spar, shirtless and sweaty, but he can’t stop to enjoy it. His father pushes him harder and harder to achieve. 

One day, after running up and down sand dunes, Jim rips his clothes off and dives into the water. When he emerges, he realises he’s been spotted by Whetu (Conan Hayes), a gay Maori teen he goes to school with. Their small New Zealand town is ruled by a working class, aggressively heteronormative culture that rising sports star Jim fits right into, but that Whetu is rejected by. When Whetu is violently beaten and sexually assaulted, Jim is forced to reckon with his own sense of identity and morality. 

The locations look stunning through the lens of cinematographer Matt Henley. Together with Ings and art director Mark Grenfell, they create gorgeous visuals that liven up the screen. A sensual eye lingers on the scenery and characters, finding the beauty in the aggression of the boxing as well as the landscape. Brilliantly enhanced with sound design by James Hayday, Punch looks and sounds like a much higher budget film than it is. The attack on Whetu is expertly created and distressingly impactful.

The lead trio of actors are all outstanding. Oosterhof is terrific as a young man on the verge of adulthood. His rambunctious energy gives a youthfulness to his aggressive fighting while Roth brings gravitas to the proceedings as his alcoholic father. Hayes’ Whetu is warm and appealing.

Where Punch starts to struggle is with its screenplay. The relationship between Jim and his father is thinly drawn and the motivation behind his father’s drive is lacking. Jim’s decision to leave home feels abrupt, as does his attraction to Whetu. There are passing references to Jim’s dream of being a music video director, but the sacrifices he makes to pursue boxing instead are left unexplored.

Multiple plot lines feel needlessly distracting and there is connective tissue missing from scenes resulting in some narrative leaps and emotional gaps. The storyline of a competing boxing coach pulls the viewer away from the emotional core. At times Punch feels like a collection of scenes (some overwritten, and occasionally lacking a sense of direction), rather than a cohesive whole. There are at least three films here, and none get the attention that they need.

It is rescued by the Oosterhof’s charming screen presence and the grit of Roth that breathe life into their characters far beyond the page. A tighter focus on them and their relationship feels like a missed opportunity with two such talented actors.

Technically beautiful, filled with appealing performances and some truly visceral moments, Punch may be a rocky road at times but it takes you on a worthwhile journey to some excellent sights.

By Chad Armstrong

Punch receives its Australian Premiere at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival on February 16th and 24th, 2023. For more details or to purchase tickets head to the official Mardi Gras website.

Punch Film Trailer | Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival 2023

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