The Fight is brilliant, a tender emotional drama that often managed to sock me right in the gut with its depictions of bullying, abuse, and the lasting damages caused by them. Many similar British domestic dramas have covered this ground before but they can’t seem to help going melodramatic with the material and indulging in the kitchen-sink drama lineage that runs through this type of film, even the ones that consciously play up a gritty realist working-class aesthetic. Hynes miraculously avoids that altogether. I couldn’t point out a stereotypically BIG scene in its drama, and the back of my mind was always prepping like a hawk to pounce on anything that even remotely resembled an interaction during key narrative scenes that ordinary human beings wouldn’t make.
Perhaps I should extrapolate a little bit. I was bullied as a child, quite often, even moved schools at the onset of Juniors in order to try and get away from one example of it, and the scenes featured in The Fight where Tina Bell’s (Hynes) eldest daughter is being bullied by another schoolgirl caused these flushes in the pit of my stomach where those prior memories came flooding back. And what did it for me was the simplicity of it all. The girl’s bully didn’t beat her up, enact a school-wide prank designed to humiliate her, didn’t come up with masses of creative insults. All the bully does is shove her every day, insist that nobody likes her, call her a chicken when she refuses to fight back. Just these daily small acts designed to whittle down a victim’s self-esteem and make the bully feel better about themselves, which they’ll display in the moment for an additional hit to oneself. When combined with Hynes’ matter-of-fact but very carefully-considered direction – although the visual style is very much de rigueur for 95% of first-time independent filmmakers, it’s the feel of the film, which is hard to describe much like it is with most movies, that’s the kicker here – these scenes provoked an extremely personal response within me in a way that I couldn’t shake off.
Somewhat akin to recent seasons of BoJack Horseman, The Fight seeks to show how the effects of bullying are not temporary and, in fact, can fuel further abuse and even go generational if the victim cannot work through those emotional scars. It turns out that Tina and the bully’s mum (Radha Mitchell) have a prior history with one another that has impacted both of their home lives and the home lives of their children, whilst Tina’s own mother (a realistically detestable Anita Dobson) is revealed to have been emotionally and physically abusive to both Tina and her father (Christopher Fairbank) growing up and even today. But, crucially, Hynes also understands that past histories are only reasons for bullying and abusive behaviour, not excuses. That breaking out of that learned behaviour can be hugely difficult, especially at a young age when you become trapped in that feedback loop with no way out, but also that doing so is necessary in order to stop passing on the damage and being able to move on. How both abuser and victim can overcorrect as they get older and either drown in self-punishing guilt and remorse or become the very thing they hated.
Honestly, the weakest part of this ostensible boxing drama is the boxing. It’s an especially weird thing to say given that it passes all my tests with flying colours by being thematically resonant – not just on the usual level of being a metaphor for self-improvement, but how it represents the lingering guilt of a past self Tina despises yet can’t help being drawn to – and uniquely presented (I love how Hynes films the women sparring in the ring with an admiration of their control and strength). But it’s also home to a few too many easy pop-psychology quotes and over-played story beats that feel ill-at-home in a movie like this. This is a film that handles a minor subplot where one of Mick’s (Shaun Parkes), husband of Tina, work friends keeps calling him “Black Friend” to Mick’s extreme discomfort with a wonderful underplaying that lands a million times better than the inverse would have, so to see The Fight also bust out a few “getting strong now” montages for Tina feels antithetical to the story and tone Hynes is otherwise trying to convey. Much better is the refreshingly candid and honest depiction of life as a working-class mother and the utter exhaustion and simmering discontent one can feel on days when everything is going wrong, because Hynes doesn’t shame or deny those feelings. They happen to everyone sometimes and that’s ok so long as you do something about them. Negative feelings are not inherently less valid than positive ones, after all.
So, even when The Fight stumbles or betrays its lived honesty for a brief moment of cliche – including a finale centred around a performance at a talent show, stop rolling your eyes – Hynes’ first turn behind the camera is a resounding success that I loved to pieces. I can only hope that there will be plenty more to come in the future.