Punch (Drama, Sports) (2022)
Director: Welby Ings
Writer: Welby Ings
Stars: Jordan Oosterhof, Conan Hayes, Tim Roth, Wesley Dowdell
Following in his father's footsteps, a young boxer trains for a championship match in a local event hall. At the same time, he forms a close relationship with a Māori teen around the same age as him, which isn't accepted by most of the town's inhabitants.
In his debut feature-length film, Welby Ings explores a gay relationship between two teenagers in New Zealand. It's a previously explored topic by the director following his short ''The Sparrow'' as seen in "The Male Gaze: Fleeting Glances". Confronting the stigmas around small-town life on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, presented in a harsh yet realistic manner. Production occurred from 2020 to 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand, before premiering at the 2022 New Zealand International Film Festival. It has been produced by Robin Murphy Productions and Blueskin Films while distributed by Vendetta Films.
As Jim Richardson (Jordan Oosterhof) aspires to continue in his father's footsteps, training to be a professional boxer for an important upcoming title match. Whetu (Conan Hayes) lives near the shore in a small beach shack with his dog Momoi, and his aspirations are to move to Sydney, Australia, where he feels he can embrace his sexuality and become a musician. After a frankly embarrassing encounter, Jim becomes friends with Whetu, and the teenager's relationship soon develops into something more, despite the rigid mindset of the town.
Focused initially on Jim's fledgling boxing career, "Punch" grows up to develop a relationship between him and Whetu; there are graceful tones in an otherwise austere narrative excellently provided due to competent cinematography by Welby Ings.
Both a sports and a drama feature, emphasis resonates within the latter of "Punch". During the nuanced script, real issues as a non-hetero individual are captured in painful detail. Apart from the narrative, nothing about it is forceful, even restrained. Roth's Stan Richardson provides a familiar role, soft-spoken, present yet subdued and apart from Hayes' Whetu, this is reflected in Oosterhof's Jim too, acting tough on the exterior yet showing an entirely differing demeanour caring for his dad or when with Whetu.
While closely tied to the topic of homosexuality, like "Close" in "Punch", it is presented more directly, going further than bullying and impactfully compromising. Yet, Ings' film comes across as restrained—Not quite squeezing the boxer's towel dry. That isn't to say it isn't an engaging and emotional tale; making a depressed tone come through even more impactful due to the material within. There's a line about general LGBTQ+ acceptance and tolerance that sticks with you, despite what your personal views may be.
It's a genuinely well-filmed New Zealand feature. While I'm not amazed by Australian and New Zealander films anymore, due to my experience with them, they'll undoubtedly remain near the top quality-wise. If anything, Ings' second feature could've been shortened a bit, Whetu and Jim certainly felt right, yet that was primarily sensed in isolation; even the ending was subtle, chasing dreams and passing the torch—much more profound when you truly think about it.