“How does that happen? That we become something that we’re not?”
Sometimes it can feel like life defines us instead of the other way around. Punch is a story about how people can be limited by the expectations and culture around them, but also how we can choose another path in life and how others can help us when we most need it.
Jim is the small-town favorite boxer – apparently not much else goes on in this small town. I believe this takes place in New Zealand, but it could have easily been a small town in the South. He’s training to be a professional boxer because his dad has basically brought him up to be just like himself. There’s a scene in the beginning where it appears to be Jim’s birthday party, but instead of games and cake it’s Jim and his dad play boxing.
Whetu is different from Jim in many ways, but the same in others. He’s more aware of who he is, but he’s stuck in the small town and unable to escape the homophobia that seems to follow him everywhere. He’s also stuck in his head where he doesn’t truly believe he’ll amount to much.
Jim and Whetu make a connection early on, and watching their friendship develop is one of the highlights of the film. You can see that they need each other as two people, but you can also see what they do for each other. They find joy in each other where everyone else creates anger and resentment. They lift each other up in a place where everything else seems to tear them down.
This is where I think this film can connect with people who feel like they’re not in the place they want to be, that they can be or do more but are pushed back into a life they don’t thrive in. When Jim tells Whetu about how he sees him, it’s the moment that their friendship is the most meaningful. I think it’s also where it turns into more.
I’m glad the film didn’t focus in on Jim’s journey in his sexual orientation. In the beginning we think Jim might be straight – maybe Jim does too. And, maybe he’s not gay but somewhere in-between. Really, who cares? And it doesn’t matter here. The point is that he feels something more for Whetu, yet he doesn’t struggle with it or turn into melodrama because of it. It just is.
Another thing that stuck out to me was the control that existed in both of the main characters’ lives. Expectations and his father and later managers for Jim. Being stuck in the small town being torn down for Whetu. Couple that with being young and not feeling sure of oneself, and that could be a sad story.
One of the interesting moments early in the film was a the juxtaposition of two scenes. First, we have Jim going through his daily routines – boxing, hanging out with his girlfriend, etc. At one point his girlfriend seems to be trying to have sexy time with him, but he claims he has to run. Literally. The next scene, he’s running through the beach. Seemingly relieved to be out of his regular life, he strips down naked as if he is free of everything and continues to run (free).
Jim and Whetu don’t necessarily end up together. I think this makes a point that they are in each other’s lives for a short time, and yet they have a profound influence on each other and the paths they take. It’s these momentary connections with other people that can change the course of our lives. Both show each other that there is more than what they have lived in the small town that “reeks of testosterone,” and they can be more than they are there.
Update: More information from Welby Ings can be found in this interview from RNZ. I enjoyed hearing directly from the creator of this film, and that so much of what he was trying to do really came across in the movie. I especially like what Welby says about how often gay characters are portrayed as very one-dimensional or sanitized, and that he tried to make Jim and Whetu as complicated, flawed people.