A promising teenage boxer in a claustrophobic small town discovers his sexuality when he falls in love with the only openly gay kid in high school. It sounds like the biggest film cliche ever, but New Zealand film-maker Welby Ings does something subtle and tender with this in his sensitive feature debut. It’s a delicate film with a pair of lovely, natural-feeling performances from its two leads.
Jordan Oosterhof is Jim, a boxer growing up in a seaside town in New Zealand where homophobia is alive and kicking: “faggot” is a routine term of abuse. Jim is gearing up for his first ever professional fight, trained by his English dad, alcoholic ex-boxer Stan (a nicely low-key performance by Tim Roth, all drained exhaustion and disappointment). Jim hangs about with the sports bros, but he’s also a budding photographer. Oosterhof’s effortlessly persuasive performance shows his gentleness and curiosity about the world – Jim passes for jock but has a poetic soul and an emotional life too. One day, Jim finds a hideaway den built by a classmate. This is Whetu (Conan Hayes), an outsider on two fronts: gay and Māori. Whetu is bravely and defiantly queer in the face of town bullies; there’s homophobic hate crime that’s upsetting, but to me didn’t feel gratuitous or exploitative.
Punch is a film that draws on two traditions: gay coming-of-age drama and sports movie, perhaps leaning more to the former with its dreamy wistful cinematography and nostalgic mood. What’s missing maybe is the energy and adrenaline of a boxing movie. Still, it packs an emotional punch; the delicacy of its feelings is compelling.