A straightforward documentary about an up-and-coming Irish boxer, "SouthPaw" has plenty of textbook wisdom to share. Train hard, aim for the body, take the fight to your man -- the fundamental rules apply. Woven into the film, however, is another, inadvertent message: A dedicated athlete does not a movie star make.
The story of Francis Barrett has all the earmarks of high drama. The 19-year-old Irishman is one of the "travelers," the societal subgroup whose impoverished, vagabond lifestyle makes them the whipping boys of the Emerald Isle.
Under the tutelage of Chick Gillen, a philanthropic former pugilist, Barrett defies the odds (and the prejudices of his countrymen) to qualify for the 1996 Olympics. He's even allowed to carry the Irish flag through the streets of Atlanta. Returning home, however, he faces an uncertain future within a cultural landscape whose bigotry has grown even more pronounced.
So why doesn't "SouthPaw" pack the punch it should? For one, the film's odd structure lopes from one incident to the next without regard for narrative build. Director Liam McGrath fails to explain why the events that follow the Olympic trip -- a dream voyage we assume will form the film's climax -- are more significant.
For two years, McGrath enjoyed intimate access to his subject, yet the finished portrait is strangely sketchy. At one point, we're whisked away to Barrett's wedding; the sequence might hold significance had we been told he had a girlfriend in the first place. Often, "SouthPaw" seems less like a full-fledged film than a career-in-progress episode of a sports-anthology series on Sunday TV.
The fighter's struggle exposes us to a number of colorful characters, including Gillen, whose all-for-the-lads conviviality is expressed in a wardrobe of clashing plaids and checks that even Bob Hoskins wouldn't wear under duress.
But no matter how remarkable Barrett's surroundings and accomplishments may be, there's no avoiding the realization that he himself is an empty bucket of a hero. An aw-shucks grin seldom leaves his face, and his insights into his progress are limited to clichéd pronouncements of national pride and loyalty to his coach. He must be drawing from some emotional well to maintain the aggression his sport requires, but it's a well from which we never see him drink.
Inoffensiveness, we learn, is Barrett's secret weapon. By avoiding the appearance of rabble-rousing, he's been permitted to rise far above the average traveler's station. Good for him; bad for us.