Review: 'Punch' Packs Understated Power

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday March 6, 2023

"Punch"  (Source:New Zealand Film Commission)

Welby Ings' movie "Punch" embraces a handful of tired tropes — small town, defiant gay teen, bullies — but rather than play to the easiest and most familiar story beats, Ings finds fresh ways to explore friendship, sexual awakening, and a young man's coming of age.

Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) is a bright young talent on the New Zealand boxing scene. Living with his father in the seaside town of Pirau, Jim trains hard, preparing for a fight with welterweight champion Tommy Palu (Eruera Mahara). But his focus is divided; Dad (Tim Roth), once a promising boxer in his own right, has a serious drinking problem... so serious that he's facing catastrophic health consequences he doesn't want to tell Jim about.

All Jim knows is that his dad is too often drunk, and when he does concentrate on Jim's training it's with too tight a leash. Wanting to hang out with his friends — including girlfriend Chelsea (Abigail Laurent) — and pursue his hobby of making music videos, Jim feels a need to move forward in his life. That includes a little more freedom; on a training run along the beach, finally able to feel a measure of liberation, Jim tosses off his clothes and sprints along the sand in a moment of abandon.

That's when Whetu (Conan Hayes) takes note of him. A loner without family or friends, Whetu attends the local high school but lives by himself in a shack he's fixed up with cast-off furniture and other (presumably scavenged) household goods. At first, the two young men are ary of each other — their initial encounters consist of them ordering each other to "fuck off" — but they eventually forge a friendship.

Jim seems unconcerned about Whetu being openly gay... until, that is, his usual crowd of buddies happen along just as Whetu is buying a jar of Vaseline while Jim waits for him. It's not what you might think; his competence doesn't just extend to creative clothing choices and making up songs on his guitar. It turns out that Whetu can fix cars as well as build homes, and the Vaseline is intended to lubricate a stubborn hose in Jim's car.

The awkward moment creates a rift between the two. "All you straight guys are the same," Whetu, disappointed in Jim, declares, before turning his back on Jim.

That's where things might end between them, except for a shocking act of violence that leaves Whetu in the hospital. Jim, stricken by conscience and concern, spends hours at his bedside, but even then a nurse's gentle inquiry — "Are you together?" — sends him scurrying off.

So what is his deal? When he puts off Chelsea's unmistakable signals showing she wants to have sex, is it really a matter of needing to stick to his training schedule (not to mention worry that his dad, who has no sense of boundaries, might pop up at any second)? Or do Jim's erotic tastes lie in a different direction?

Ings keeps the audience guessing, but the movie has other things to talk about, including how a pair of shady brothers (Wesley Dowdell and Tom Clarke) begin to insinuate themselves in Jim's fledgling boxing career. Their tactics include isolating Jim from his ailing father and emotionally bullying him. Like it or not, though, everything in his life and future depends on getting into the ring with Tommy Palu and proving himself — or does it?

Oosterhof is another young actor, like Australian rising star Josh Lavery ("Lonesome") who combines a buff physicality with a talent for veiled, but emotionally compelling, performance. Hayes is a magnetic screen presence in the role of a gay kid in a conservative town who knows he has to be tough in order to survive, but refuses to let that drive his more delicate qualities underground. Roth brings star power to the project, but turns in a haggard, vanity-free performance that lets the younger actors shine.

"Punch" opens in theaters, and will also be available on demand, March 10.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.