Sparked by an upcoming grudge-match between an ex-con and a local boxing champ, racial tensions flare up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in compelling, intelligent drama “Poor Boy’s Game.” Although the script by helmer Clement Virgo and Chaz Thorne is a shade too schematic at times, pic is powerful enough in other ways to knock out resistance to its charms. Uneasy to categorize and therefore to market, “Game” will struggle to get more than limited release beyond Canadian borders, but it could win retrospective recognition on ancillary, such as boxing classic “Fat City,” which it somewhat resembles.
Working class Donnie Rose (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland) is first met on the eve of release from prison. Ten years ago, Donnie beat black kid Charlie Carvery (K.C. Collins) — who at the time was, like Donnie, an aspiring boxer — so badly he suffered permanent brain damage.
While in prison, Donnie has honed his boxing skills, and he and his cellmate, who is black, have become lovers — a fact he keeps secret when he rejoins his homophobic and racist brother Keith (Greg Bryk) on the outside.
Set-up recalls the subplot of a gay boxer hiding his sexuality from homophobic friends in Virgo’s first film, “Rude,” but Donnie’s sexuality is much less the point here than his sense of guilt about what he did to Charlie, and how that crime years ago sets in motion a blood feud in the present between the black and white communities of Halifax.
Charlie’s dockworker father George (Danny Glover) at first wants revenge against Donnie, but can’t bring himself to shoot him. However, local boxing star Ossie Paris (Flex Alexander)decides to get payback on the Carvery family’s behalf by making Donnie an offer he can’t quite refuse: $20,000 to go 10 rounds in the ring with him, a bout which will surely leave Donnie in the same state as Charlie if he lives through it.
On paper it might seem ridiculously unlikely, but onscreen it almost seems natural that George, an ex-boxer himself, ends up coaching Donnie before the bout to help him survive Ossie’s fists. Much credit goes to Glover for conveying George’s complex tides of subsurface emotions, making the character’s actions credible.
Pic’s widening circle of characters recalls the big ensemble dramas of John Sayles, but without the politics. Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” is another obvious touchstone here, a similarity underscored when Donnie and Keith have revelation-filled argument in the back of a car that recalls Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” scene.
Although Virgo’s helming is hardly on a par with Kazan’s, “Poor Boy’s Game” may rep his best work so far, blending seamlessly his preoccupation with race, fluid identities, and complex sexuality.
Likewise, young Sutherland isn’t exactly Brando, but he’s got brooding charisma to spare, and looks credible in the boxing scenes. Rest of cast gives excellent perfs, especially Bryk as the thuggish Keith.
Lensing has an ochre-toned hue throughout, as if all the action were taking place inside rooms with dirty windows. Freeze frames and high-speed cameras are used in the climactic boxing bout to stylize the proceedings to good effect, along with deliberately distorted sound effects.