‘Punch’ Review: Hitting at the Heart

Welby Ings’s keenly observant debut feature follows a young, promising boxer whose priorities shift.

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By Kyle Turner

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Sports dramas, perhaps more than movies in most genres, have an ability to cut to the chase when dealing with themes of gender: The fraught tension between the athlete and their arena so often comes down to how well they adhere to traditional notions of their gender identity. This idea is at the forefront in “Punch,” the feature debut of the New Zealand writer-director Welby Ings, which dexterously balances familiar emotional beats and an impressive, nimble approach to form.

Jim’s (Jordan Oosterhof) potential as a boxer is a promise, to himself and to his alcoholic father, Stan (Tim Roth). Jim, a high school student, could finally leave rural Auckland. He could become the boxing star his father never managed to be. The closer Jim gets to a local queer outcast, Whetu (Conan Hayes), though, the more his priorities shift away from being in the ring.

Flowing and keenly observant of its characters and setting, “Punch” swings above its weight class. Though it is too often formulaic in its melodrama, Ings’s film is granted an unusual and compelling out-of-time feel. Its production design, by Iain Aitken, features elements both  modern and not: The training gym appears worn and aged, with paint flaking off the walls and faded pictures that look like they’re from the 1950s. But beneath one photo of the boy and his father, a caption reads “Pirau Boxing Club 2014.” Matt Henley’s cinematography gives the movie a dreamlike texture, as if the bonds between father and son, and fighter and lover, transcend time and place.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.

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