Gritty authenticity goes up against cloying pathos — with the latter unfortunately emerging victorious — in the skid row drama “Cardboard Boxer.”
With his matted hair, frozen shuffle and haunted gaze, Thomas Haden Church convincingly disappears into the role of Willie, just one of the destitute living on the Nickel, a.k.a. downtown L.A.’s 5th Street.
Handed his title nickname by a rich punk (Rhys Wakefield) with a video camera and a wad of $50 bills who posts online videos of homeless dudes beating each other to a pulp, Willie ultimately finds a semblance of salvation in the form of a troubled young girl’s charred diary (voiced by Elyse Cole) he discovers while dumpster diving.
The journal’s singed pages serve as his constant companion, but they prove to be no friend to this first feature by Knate Lee, who forged an earlier reputation as resident cameraman for the “Jackass” TV series and movies.
Although he effectively establishes the downtrodden milieu, Lee’s script ultimately succumbs to mounting clichés and plot contrivances.
Church, meanwhile, remains impressively rooted in his character, while the supporting cast, including Terrence Howard as a benevolent cab driver known as the Pope, and Macy Gray as a hooker who conducts her business out of a port-a-potty, grab on to what they can of their considerably more limited roles.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; also on VOD