Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes from a poor background and out of the foster system, but he has literally fought his way into a good life: he’s a successful boxer, happily married to Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and has a charming daughter in Leila (Oona Laurence). But everything changes when Maureen is shot. Billy falls apart and with him, everything he has fought for: he is banned from fighting, his daughter is given into foster care, he can’t pay his taxes and loses his home. So he has to start from scratch, looking to trainer Tick (Forest Whitaker) for help to get back on his feet, and most importantly to get his daughter home.
Southpaw doesn’t really tell a revolutionary story, but it tells it well. The cast is unsurprisingly excellent and the race angle is surprisingly not awful, so that’s definitely something.
I freely admit that I don’t get boxing. Why would you want to hit somebody for fun/sport? Why would you want to watch somebody hit somebody for fun? I don’t understand. Southpaw didn’t change my view on boxing and the boxing itself made me cringe a lot (especially since it’s Gyllenhaal’s pretty face getting bashed in), but Fuqua manages to transport some of the excitement of fighting and at least I wasn’t bored by the violence.
That also maybe because the story isn’t focused on the sport, but rather on Billy’s struggle to deal with his private life after his wife and external embodiment of his brain and his common sense dies. (That she would get fridged is already clear from the trailer, that is the story set-up, so I have difficulties faulting the film for that, but of course, it’s a classic fridging.) Jake Gyllenhaal is great in the role, bringing both Billy’s short fuse and his earnest struggle to do better to life.
Billy is almost the only white guy in the entire film – his entourage is pretty much entirely black, his opponent and his entourage latino, his manager and his trainer are black. While the general diversity of the (male) cast is commendable, one does wonder why the story had to be about the white guy. But if you accept that, at least the film does its best not to fall into stereotypes and pretty much succeeds (except for the little black boy who is later also fridged for Billy’s character development).
But what the film gets best is Leila’s reaction to her father falling apart and her subsequent stay in the foster home. Leila, wonderfully played by Oona Laurence, is angry at her father that he let things go so far, she is desperate to go home to him and she is very lonely in her grief for her mother. And while Billy doesn’t want his kid to end up in the foster system and the situation is emotionally taxing for both him and Leila, the film takes care to show that the people in that system are trying really hard to do right by Leila, making this film a rare instance of a sensitive portrayal of the foster system. That alone makes the film worth it.