I truly believe that Cardboard Boxer was made with the best of intentions. First-time writer-director Knate Lee has clearly put a lot of time and effort into making a film that shines a light on the realities of homelessness, and the end result is a movie with enough mood and presence to really make one think hard about how we treat the invisible underclass of our society. However, Cardboard Boxer doesn’t just exist as a social justice exposé, but also as a piece of narrative cinema, and unfortunately it carries enough intrinsic flaws to keep it from greatness.
Cardboard Boxer is a largely plotless character study of a homeless man named Willie (Thomas Haden Church) who survives day-to-day in his city by making as little verbal contact as possible. He discovers a burnt diary in the ruins of a building one day and begins relating with the words of the abused young girl who wrote them. Meanwhile, a group of rich young people rope Willie in as a street boxer for petty cash, and Willie comes to rely on them more for their illusion of friendship than their prize money.
I describe the film as plotless because the titular boxing plot isn’t really the central focus of the narrative, and Willie’s relationship with the diary isn’t so much a plot in and of itself as it is a device for him to respond in voiceover monologue about his thoughts and feelings. And as far as communicating those feelings, the film does a pretty good job. Willie’s desperation for the bare minimum of polite conversation is palpable, and the way that people ignore and fear him and the other homeless characters is as disheartening as it is realistic. The streets are filled with the mentally ill, the elderly, and tossed-aside veterans who must compete with one another to survive, and the street boxing only literalizes the dispassion the upper classes of society have for the plight of the most vulnerable.
However, that plotlessness is also to the film’s disservice, as a plotless narrative primarily relies on the strength of its characters and performances to do well. Thomas Haden Church is able to display Willie’s emotional nuances just fine, but he insists upon affecting a slurred speech impediment that is supposed to clue us in on a mental disability yet comes across as reductively offensive. The other characters that inhabit Willie’s world are even shallower: a war veteran wants to die because he lost his legs for a country that refuses to support him afterward, and a couple of selfish rich kids are so unsympathetic as to blatantly manipulate the homeless toward their exhibitionist ends. Terrence Howard is in the film as an impoverished taxi driver who shares his meager wealth with black homeless people, but he is mostly either absent or inactive for the majority of the film’s runtime, making him almost entirely superfluous. The consequence of all these shallow performances is that the social commentary comes across as heavy-handed, because despite the film’s positively empathetic message it doesn’t have the narrative structure to support the commentative monologues.
Cardboard Boxer is a better film than a synopsis will give it credit for, as it has much higher aspirations than simply being Bum Fights: The Movie. It purposely goes out of its way to not be exploitative, and it deserves commendation for that. However, the film that was built out of that motivation is flimsy and lightweight, a shallow story that doesn’t carry the heft that this pressing issue demands. With a stronger narrative backbone, this could have been a contender. Instead, we’re left with a film so unremarkable as to be ignored as its subject. And that’s just sad.