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Review: TIFF 2019: ‘Jungleland’ is neither road trip nor boxing movie (Includes first-hand account)

Love is a tricky emotion because even though you love something or someone, you don’t necessarily have to like them too — at least not all of the time. But it’s in those moments of dislike that love is most important because it keeps you tethered, for better or worse. This happens often between family members and on a similar level, professional athletes. The time to worry is when the scales are weighing more heavily on the negative side. In Jungleland, adult siblings cling to their love for each other and boxing, but the ties that bind them aren’t as strong as they used to be.

Lion (Jack O’Connell) was a professional boxer. Now, thanks to some poor judgement by his older brother, Stanley (Charlie Hunnam), he’s a bare-knuckle fighter in underground rings around the city. But one screw up leads to another and now they’re in deep to a local gangster. The solution: drive cross-country to San Francisco to fight in a tournament with a big prize and drop-off Sky (Jessica Barden) without asking any questions. Of course, their road trip is plagued with self-inflicted problems and their odds of success — or survival — lessen with every mile gained.

This isn’t your typical road trip or boxing movie as both those things take a backseat to the brotherly conflict between Stanley and Lion. The dynamic is familiar: Lion feels like he owes Stanley because he cared for him when no one else was around. But that debt has come at a heavy price to Lion, both physically and emotionally. As much as he tries not to think about it, he’s well aware his brother destroyed his career and continues to be the reason they’re always on the run. Conversely, Stanley chooses to see himself as the reason they’ve stayed afloat all these years as barely getting by is still getting by. But their difference of opinion is about to come to a head. Sky’s presence certainly complicates the situation, but she’s simply a catalyst and an excuse.

There’s only three fights in the film and there’s nothing spectacular about them. Instead, audiences are made to feel the brutality of Lion’s reality by watching grown men pummel each other without gloves for a few hundred bucks. As they spit blood and Stanley shouts encouragement from the sidelines, unscathed, it’s clear viewers are expected to sympathize with the younger brother. By making Stanley the outsider, his actions are immediately viewed with some level of disdain — usually because he’s in the midst of doing something disdainful — which makes the ending not only predictable but easier to swallow.

There’s a good connection between O’Connell and Hunnam, which makes their love-hate relationship feel authentic and captures the audience’s attention. But the inclusion of Sky in their narrative is too much of a device and actually weakens an otherwise solid story about two brothers acknowledging their co-dependency, confronting their animosity and searching for reasons to stay together.

Jungleland had its world premiere in the Special Presentations category at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2019 coverage.

Director: Max Winkler
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jack O’Connell and Jessica Barden

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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