starring Michael Riley, Sonja Bennett, Marcia Laskowski, Meredith McGeachie
written and directed by Guy Bennett
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover It may be a mess of an uncommon magnitude, but I walked out of Guy Bennett's Punch swelling with national pride. Here is a Canadian film that tosses both Hollywood dramaturgy and home-grown obsequiousness out the window and ricochets madly off the walls; its astoundingly painful psychodrama flings caution to the wind and makes bizarre crossed-wire connections that only someone outside of the Californian system could possibly be allowed to make. Though far from perfect, it's never boring, and if nothing else will change the way you view topless female boxing for all time.
The Cassavetes-style scramble begins with single-father Sam (Michael Riley) at the swimming pool with his daughter Ariel (Sonja Bennett); they seem to be more than simply related, and when a girl in the change-room mockingly points this out, Ariel decks her. Their problems are placed in high relief when Sam's sort-of girlfriend Mary (Marcia Laskowski) comes to the house and is subsequently cold-cocked by a jealous Ariel. Clearly the girl is hung up on her father, a matter which is driven into crisis when Mary's angry sister shows up to exact revenge on her sister's assailant: she winds up learning the fate of Ariel's mother and getting entangled in the family madness. Oh, and she's also a topless female boxer.
How does this add up? Not very well--and that's good news for everybody. Punch's greatest asset is its refusal to give its characters an obvious symbolism and its narrative a smoothly-curved arc. It allows people to grope about in the dark for the things that will soothe them, and allows them to bump into each other in the unpleasant process. This means the film makes connections it wouldn't otherwise make, finding its meaning as it goes along and leaving us trapped in a darkened room with a madman whose ravings make more sense as he screams at the top of his lungs. I want to be as vague as possible about what actually happens in the film so that the surprises are there for you as they were for me; rest assured that by the time Ariel and Mary square off in Sam's garage, so many ghosts have sailed past our heads they've been spun clean around by the chaos and fury of unprotected lives.
Punch is not an unqualified success; there are the inevitable loose ends, and a few showboating monologues that stick out like sore thumbs--the scattershot approach to subject matter takes away as much as it gives. And there's the sense in which the film, even at its most raw, is reined-in by an upper-middle-class aesthetic of gentility; Punch plays its messy drama in a space that is too clean, and the contrast sometimes breaks the spell. But for all it does wrong, it does right in ways that movies (Canadian, American or otherwise) seldom do, and for that, it's worth taking the chance. And did I mention the topless female boxing? Originally published: February 7, 2003.