Critics Pick

‘Catch the Fair One’ Review: Boxer Kali Reis’ Big-Screen Acting Debut Is a Knockout

Josef Kubota Wladyka introduces a different kind of hero in this grim but compelling portrait of a fighter who takes on human traffickers.

Catch the Fair One - Variety Critic's Pick - Film Review

Catch the Fair One” is activist filmmaking at its most compelling. Before you run away from the notion, consider this: It doesn’t feel like this tough, relentlessly dark thriller is trying to push some kind of political point, even if so many of its creative choices succeed in doing exactly that.

Collaborating with Native boxing champ Kali “KO” Reis on the script, director Josef Kubota Wladyka has made a riveting vigilante story that can hold its own alongside Paul Schrader’s most punishing payback fantasies. Imagine daughter-rescue drama “Hardcore” with a female fighter in the George C. Scott role, or an inversion of revenge-minded “The Card Counter,” where it’s an above-the-law human trafficker rather than a torture-condoning U.S. general being taught a lesson at the end. (The film also reminds of Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River,” with its brutal violence and attention to Native rights.)

Such movies can sometimes feel overly nihilistic, as unflinching filmmakers set a self-destructive individual plunging into the darkest corners of the American dream. But they can also be liberating, eye-opening and cathartic. By now, the genre is so familiar, audiences crave some fresh variation on the formula.

Reis supplies that lightning bolt of originality here. This may be her first big-screen role, but she’s a natural, coming on with all the intensity of a clenched fist: cheeks pierced, arms inked, shoulders hunched like an agitated honey badger ready to attack. The result is a locomotive of pain and retribution, delivered by a character who makes Halle Berry’s “Bruised” boxer look like an unweaned kitten by comparison.

Reis is of Native and Cape Verdean heritage, and she dedicates much of her free time to outreach to at-risk youth. “Catch the Fair One” depicts one of the many threats such teens ought to be wary of, and it positions Reis as a kind of hero who’s badass/foolish enough to take on the predators single-handed.

The film opens and closes with a fantasy, in which Reis may as well be playing herself: Her alter ego, Kaylee Uppeshau, is backstage at a boxing match, taping her wrists and prepping for a prizefight. In real life, Reis is the first mixed Native American boxer to win a pro title, whereas for Kaylee, those days are long gone (early on, a fan recognizes her in a dead-end diner job, where she takes uneaten food from the plates to get by). Before, Kaylee’s kid sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero) was her biggest supporter, but after the teen disappeared walking home from her gym one day, Kaylee’s life unraveled. She got mixed up in drugs, lost her girlfriend and landed in a women’s shelter where she sleeps with a razor blade stashed in her mouth.

Kaylee doesn’t fight anymore — not in the ring, at least — but she’s training for something, and Wladyka (who also directed “Manos sucias” and a handful of “Narcos” episodes) is strategic about how and what he reveals about her plan. Weeta’s abduction is part of a larger phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women. That’s where the film’s educational/activist streak comes in, if only to raise awareness. It’s been years since Kaylee’s sister vanished, and it’s clear that the authorities have been no help. Their mom (Kimberly Guerrero) leads a support group for grieving family members, which is her way of coping, of moving on.

But Kaylee is stuck. Action is her only option. She’s a complicated character who doesn’t speak much, which means that audiences must lean in to make sense of what’s happening as her plan unfolds. Kaylee has done her research. She’s identified the pimps who pair underage (“off the boat”) Native girls with clients willing to pay for that fetish. But Kaylee has a lot less control over the situation than she thinks she does, and it can be agonizing to watch this woman, strong but hardly invincible, sacrifice herself to this underworld hoping for clues to Weeta’s whereabouts.

Wladyka doesn’t sugarcoat anything, assuming audiences are tough enough to take it all in. The film lands like a gut punch at times, one that can leave you feeling as if you’ve swallowed the anger-honed razor blade of Kaylee’s guilt. Whether it’s justice or atonement she seeks, the tension slices you up from the inside, rendered all the more ominous by composer Nathan Halpern. The director spares us the sex stuff but obliges us to confront the consequences. Instead of cutting away, he twists the knife — quite literally, in one scene. In another, a shotgun blast nearly takes off a character’s head, after which the camera cuts back to the corpse for a few seconds, letting the damage sink in.

No one rises from the dead in this movie. Bullets are blunt, quick and final. It’s effective, but also upsetting — as violence should be. Kaylee’s dream may be to get back in the ring, to have her mom by her side (as opposed to quietly wishing it was Kaylee who’d been taken, versus favored child Weeta). But Reis’ dream is to put an end to this kind of mistreatment, to show audiences a different side of the Native experience. She and Wladyka make a terrific team, defying stereotypes and opening minds via this serious-minded collaboration. In a word, it’s a knockout.

‘Catch the Fair One’ Review: Boxer Kali Reis’ Big-Screen Acting Debut Is a Knockout

Reviewed at CAA screening room, Los Angeles, June 3, 2021. In Tribeca Film Festival. Running time: 86 MIN.

  • Production: An IFC Films release of a The Population production, in association with Protozoa Pictures, Firstgen Content, Heretical Reasons Prods., Needle's Eye Prods. Producers: Mollye Asher, Kimberly Parker, Josef Kubota Wladyka. Executive producers: Darren Aronofsky, Mynette Louie, Derek Nguyen, Ari Handel, Cat Hobbs, James Hausler, Charles Steifler, Todd Steifel, Michael D'Alto, Christopher Triana, Claude Amadeo, Shaun Sanghani, Sam Bisbee, Arturo Castro.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Josef Kubota Wladyka. Story: Kali Reis, Josef Kubota Wladyka. Camera: Ross Giardina. Editor: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. Music: Nathan Halpern. Music supervisor: Dina Juntila.
  • With: Kali Reis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Chu, Michael Drayer, Shelly Vincent, Lisa Emery, Kimberly Guerrero, Kevin Dunn.