Catch the Fair One is an edge-of-your-seat, gritty action film driven by a strong lead and its fearless determination to put the overlooked and ominous world of sex trafficking, particularly of Indigenous girls, on full display.
Director and writer, Josef Kubota Wladyka, knows something about telling stories that showcase the cutthroat and violent underworld. Wladyka has directed episodes of the Netflix hit series, Narcos and its spinoff, Narcos: Mexico. Here, Wladyka tells an equally suspenseful story from the female perspective of a biracial (Indigenous and Cape Verdean) boxer.
Kaylee “K.O.” (Kali Reis) was once a glorified boxer but the disappearance of her younger sister, Weeta (Mainaku Borrero), two years prior, derails the fighter into cavernous grief and self-blame. The effects are monumental — she quits boxing, ends a relationship with her partner, becomes a drug addict (but is now clean) and works as a waitress at a diner, reluctantly relying on the uneaten food from customer’s plates as a means of survival. Further, she resides in a women’s shelter and sleeps with a razor blade tucked into her cheek. The appearance of blood on her bedding when she wakes is a foreshadow of the bloodshed to come. The torment of losing Weeta affects Kaylee day-to-day and propels her to voluntarily infiltrate a sex trafficking ring with hopes of finding her.
Reis does an exceptional job in her acting debut as the troubled and desperate Kaylee. Her ability to portray Kaylee in a range of emotions is impressive as a first-time actor. The strength of this skill rests in her eyes. They’re darting, somber, sad and, at times, threatening. The subtitles in her movements and facial expressions give significant insight into her character.
She’s never comfortable nor satisfied. Her motivations and will to succeed are apparent as she pulls from real world pain and anguish from relentless fighting only to be ignored. Her emotional transitions are seamless. Kaylee is shy and meek one moment but also headstrong and fearless in others. For instance, at the women’s shelter, Kaylee walks into the showers with her arms wrapped around her muscular and tattooed frame. On guard. Uneasy. When her back is against the wall, she is ferocious and determined. When she says you’re going to tell her something, she means it.
There’s no doubt that Reis brought in much of her own lived experience and frustrations for the film. A two-title boxing world champion and a fierce proponent for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIW), Reis understands the importance of getting it right. She worked with Wladyka to develop the script. Her input is unmistakingly felt in everything from Kaylee’s decisions to the realistic portrayal of the support group for missing Indigenous women and girls led by her on-screen mother (Kimberly Guerrero).
The scene shows a wall covered with flyers of the missing. Even in these moments, the movie is far from preachy. In fact, it’s reminiscent of Taken, Wind River with a touch of Million Dollar Baby. Like Taken, it is a violent search and rescue against ruthless captors. Aside from its subject, Catch the Fair One’s tension-filled scenes, haunting score (by Nathan Halpern) and the captor’s affinity to vast, desolate areas, make for a suspenseful viewing experience like the Jeremy Renner-led mystery. Lastly, Kaylee struggles financially and familially like Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Similarly, the only person she can trust is her trainer, Brick (Shelly Vincent). However, it is still a film that stands very much on its own, likely owing to the help of Reis’ and her community’s input.
Catch the Fair One immerses its viewers in Kaylee’s world. For the most part, we’re only privy to what she knows, though there are a few exceptions, Wladyka makes it clear that this is her story. We view the world through her eyes, (literally and figuratively) and feel its weight as it sits, aggravatingly, on her shoulders. Cinematographer, Ross Giardina, utilizes a gray and blue color palette throughout to show that the world is bleak, isolating and insufferable.
Still, the worst comes at night. Draped in darkness, powerful white men quietly come to take what isn’t theirs. It is they who deliver the searing lines, “Nobody’s looking because nobody cares” and “You think I remember their names,” void of any trace of humanity. It is a reminder of where you rank in this world if you are not one of them.
Once Kaylee infiltrates the ring, she is taken to a motel with a new “batch” of nameless girls. The sequence is one of the most difficult to watch. You have to remind yourself that it is only a movie. But the reality is that it isn’t. These are the very real and disturbing experiences of sex trafficking victims — dirty motel rooms, drugs, strip-downs, selfies and more. The procurer, Danny (Michael Drayer), is a young punk who, for lack of better words, examines the girls when they are brought to the dingy motel room. Oddly, he speaks in a soft tone and makes light conversation but beneath the surface, his words are menacising. He performs his duties with such casual disinterest and bored familiarity. There is clearly an evil brewing under his fake facade.
The film is steadily paced during the first half. Kaylee’s backstory is built up enough to give the audience an idea of who she was before Weeta’s disappearance. When the film opens, we see Kaylee preparing for a match. She warms up with rhythmic precision, throwing powerful jabs and uppercuts that anyone would be a fool to step in front of. It’s sure to get your adrenaline going. But the fighter is quickly taken away and replaced with the sad and downtrodden shadow of who she once was.
Things start to feel rushed by the second half of act two. The story scrambles to wrap itself up within its 1 hour and 25 minute runtime. The seemingly character-led story starts to drown out in its own bloodshed. Violence becomes the means to a heart-racing end. A lot of questions are left unanswered. This is the film’s weakest point. We know very little about the sex trafficking operation and about those who run it. Perhaps, that is the point. For the sake of realism and to ‘other’ the villains as much as possible. But doing so feels like a missed opportunity to better educate viewers on the topic and drive home its urgency. The idea that the film is meant to bring attention to missing Indigenous women and girls gets lost amidst the violence and dead space.
Interestingly, the story takes place in an urban area rather than on or near a reservation.The exact location isn’t disclosed though the film was shot in Buffalo, New York. It’s a pleasant surprise as most of the (very limited) stories about missing Indigenous women take place on a reservation or some place near it. It’s a clever way to inform viewers that these kidnappings don’t just take place in desolate, isolated areas. They happen in plain sight because unfortunately “Nobody’s looking.”
Catch the Fair One is an important film. Reis is the perfect vessel for this story due to her vocal advocacy and lived experience. A film that gives an Indiengous woman the agency to tell their stories is refreshing. It’s something we need to see much more often. Wlydyka proficiently shares the unfortunate, repetitive cycle the Indigenous community endures through a realistic lens and a gut-wrenching story. But those who can stomach it will undoubtedly be craving the duo’s next project.