The bare-bones documentary SouthPaw focuses on Francis Barrett, a gutsy young boxer from a Traveller community in Galway, Ireland. Helped by trainer Chick Gillen, Barrett has progressed from working out in a gym fashioned from a cargo container to fighting in the 1996 Olympics. Modest and soft-spoken, Barrett is an appealing figure, but his career so far is not that impressive. Perhaps due to budget restrictions, the filmmakers fail to do justice to the more intriguing aspects of his life. The result is a spirited but shallow film whose potential audience seems limited to die-hard boxing fans.
As the film opens, Barrett is living in a trailer park outside Galway called Hillside. The land is owned by the Galway Corporation, which won't provide electricity or running water to the 17 Traveller families living there. Gillen, a barber who formed a boxing club for local youths, describes some of the prejudice Barrett faced as a Traveller, or gypsy.
Inspired by Michael Carruth, an Irishman who won a boxing medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Barrett commits himself to a fierce training program. Gillen's guidance is crucial, both in teaching Barrett the fundamentals of boxing and in giving him the confidence he needed to set high goals. Nicolas Cruz, a former member of Cuba's boxing team, also provides Barrett with valuable advice.
Barrett wins a senior amateur title, qualifying for the Atlanta Olympics. Journalists like Tom Humphries describe how Barrett's success inspired the country. Barrett was even chosen to carry the Irish flag during the opening ceremonies. However, he loses his second match and his dream of an Olympic medal.
Returning home, Barrett marries Kathleen McDonagh and moves to London to look for work. He trains in a gym there, and eventually enters the ABA championships for both England and Ireland. Barrett wins the British title, but loses in Ireland. In 1998, he competes against five-time winner Neil Gough for the Irish welterweight title. Barrett then must choose between turning professional or remaining an amateur for a shot at the Sydney Olympics.
The filmmakers accomplish a lot with limited means, but the piece overall feels sketchy and incomplete. The fights are shot in a haphazard manner, with crucial moments missing from the coverage. The producers evidently couldn't afford to film the Olympics, relying instead on televised video of Barrett's fights in Atlanta. Some artistic decisions, such as including Eydie Gorme's version of ''Round Midnight' on the soundtrack during the final fight, are dubious. The lack of almost all identifying titles makes it unnecessarily hard to follow the story. And while many of the interviews, especially those involving the warm and generous Chick Gillen, are effective, there are several curious omissions, including Barrett's wife Kathleen. SouthPaw has plenty of charm and grit, but falls short in depth and substance.