“You don’t see anyone around here playing tennis or golf. Its either kick a ball or knock a fella in the nose.” Sebastian Duthy’s documentary looks at amateur boxing in the East End, and the struggle of breaking into the sport professionally. Following two young would-be Ricky Hattons, George Kean and Marlon Mellish, over four tempestuous sporting seasons, Duthy creates a compelling portrait of the amateur boxing scene, with a sense of real stakes at play for the two young boxing novices.
Boxing is all these kids have, Duthy stresses sometimes a little too dramatically. It is their life, their passion and their career, and when it doesn’t go to plan, the impact is crushing. In their campaign, Duthy sees a microcosm for inopportunity in London’s poorer districts, and the importance of community that boxing gym’s demonstrate. Much is made of the bonds between coaches and fighters, as well as connection between the lack of a father figure in Marlon’s life and his commitment to boxing. There is the feeling, particular at the start, that Duthy is forcing greater narrative arcs where they don’t need to be so pronounced. Compared to Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym for instance, another film about the communal and spiritual value of the community gym, where there is no narration or interviews present, yet great stories emerge nonetheless, Prospects can feel a little hammy in its narrated dramatics and overemphatic contributions. ”All they got the chance of is being a good boxer, or a good thief. That is the story of the East End,” says one cockney geezer who runs a training camp in Tenerife, with sincerity that is a little laughable. Nevertheless, partially because of Duthy’s unflashy, effective direction, and partly because of the immense likeability of the two fighters, it is quickly difficult to not feel invested in their ambition, and understand the power of the emotional peaks they experience.
The fights are well captured, with a mix of slow-motion theatrics and straighter recording, and a compelling, watchable editing style that makes each fight seem as crucial to the boy involved as a title fight. A lot of the time, it isn’t the loss of the tournament that is the crux of the matter, it is the concern how the loss will impact the kid psychologically, and if he will be able to utilise the setback to build his character for the long term goal of professional fighting. George, the younger fighter, wins a lot of big fights impressively early on, but takes quite a heavy beating in a later fight, and as a result of his string of successes the toll on him is harder. By comparison, Marlon has as many wins as losses, but seems the more rounded, experienced character as a result.
There is an interesting concept in boxing that the documentary explains, that of the ‘journeyman’, a fighter who has made it to professional status but never stands a chance of winning anything, so instead makes a living off securing and losing matches with future contenders .Its a fate worse than not making it at all it seems, and the possibility of entering this limbo state hangs over all amateurs weighing up the worth of commitment to the sport. This insecurity, this sense of whether it is all worth it, underpins much of the psychological drama of the film, and is heightened when Marlon experiences a headtrauma and suffers post fight headaches and nausea. He loves to fight, but doesn’t know if he loves it that much. George, by contrast, says brazenly that these damages are “part of the job.” Unsurprisngly, both the boy’s parents are less brave. George’s dad, his coach, cries a little before a big fight, and Marlon’s mum won’t ever watch him.
Whilst Prospects is not without problems, often formally clunky and a little amateur in feel, as well as featuring some awful soundtrack selections (that may be budgetary, but would be better admitted) and some clumsy dramatics mentioned before, it does pass the first test, that of being interesting to someone without any interest in the subject matter, especially important in a sports film. Good subjects benefit Duthy, and he harnesses their charm proficiently, creating a warm cross section of a community with real heart. By the end, Duthy makes a film that manages to make amateur boxing look admirable, whilst far from glamorising anything about it. The relationships, the community, the pride and the value of the experiences comes across, amidst a very prescient sense of uncertainty. “When you start knocking kids out, it’s like, hang about, what’s going on here?” says George at one point with standard cockney charm. They don’t know quite what they are doing, or if it is the right thing to do be doing, but Prospects makes it clear that they can’t imagine doing anything else.