With Ronda Rousey lying low for the last few years and Gina Carano not lying nearly low enough, the fighter-to-actress pipeline isn’t flowing as steadily as it once was. But now a new challenger has entered the ring with “Catch the Fair One,” and she’s already a WBA champion in two other weight classes. After her bruising yet vulnerable lead performance in Josef Kubota Wladyka’s sex-trafficking thriller, boxer Kali Reis deserves to add another title belt to her collection (and not just because there’s so little in the way of competition).
Reis’ sinewy first movie role isn’t much of a stretch, but that’s part of why it packs such a devastating punch. The Providence-born pugilist — a half-Native (descending from Cherokee, Nipmuc, and Seaconke Wampanoag tribes) and half-Cape Verdean boxer who could probably destroy your entire life with a single jab to the face — plays a half-native and half-Cape Verdean boxer who could probably destroy your entire life with a single jab to the face. Her character’s name has been altered to Kaylee, but the moniker they share (“K.O.”) is spelled the same. Nevertheless, the most pressing connection between Reis and her on-screen counterpart has less to do with how they fight in the ring than it does what they fight for outside of it.
Reis, who co-wrote the script for “Catch the Fair One” alongside Wladyka, is an outspoken supporter of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement, and has leveraged her success towards helping indigenous girls learn how to defend themselves against a society that preys upon its most vulnerable (the recent discovery of 215 bodies in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia being a particularly horrific reminder of this postcolonial legacy).
When “Catch the Fair One” begins, Kaylee is already scarred from the disappearance of her teenage sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrero), who vanished off the street because that’s just what happens to girls who look like her. As it’s phrased by one of the villainous white men who Kaylee eventually slaughters on her laser-focused rampage up the ranks of local sex traffickers: “Nobody’s looking because nobody cares.” But Kaylee’s looking, and once she goes undercover as a potential girl for sale in order to hunt her targets from inside their own operation, you better believe that they’ll start to care.
Thus begins a spartan but ultra-violent revenge saga that doesn’t feel like a more severe twist on “Taken” so much as it does a less dreamy riff on “You Were Never Really Here,” a tonal choice that doesn’t always serve the strengths of a film that hits hard so long as Kaylee is punching the people who took her sister, but lowers its guard whenever she begins shadowboxing her own demons. A rising talent whose similarly grim “Manos Sucias” earned him a directing gig on season two of “The Terror” and the support of “Catch the Fair One” executive producer Darren Aronofsky, Wladyka has yet to develop the same eye for abstract trauma that he continues to showcase for situational despair, and that disparity is reflected in a second feature that’s most effective when its heroine is fighting for her life.
Kaylee is an immediately engrossing character, both for the details of her daily existence — she sleeps in a crowded boarding house with a razor blade hidden inside her cheek for protection, and often wakes up to a small pool of blood around her mouth in the morning — and for the way that her body language speaks to a woman who’s struggling to define her own strength. In one scene she’s holding her own in a long-take sparring match that leaves no doubt about Reis’ actual skill, and in the next she’s walking into the group shower with the hunched guardedness of someone who’s hiding a secret injury. She works at a local diner, and the moment when a young fan asks for an autograph during her shift is fraught with such careful shades of vulnerability, guilt, and self-doubt that it’s easy to imagine Reis excelling where the likes of Gina Carano could not (read: in the kinds of movies where her fists aren’t listed on the call sheet).
Wladyka also deserves credit for recognizing that his first-time actress would be able to carry scenes of breathless intensity and evoke complex dimensions of pain through posture alone. The dread produced by his unflinchingly formal style peaks with a scene where Kaylee is forced to “audition” for the recruiter who brings girls into the trafficking ring. In a film that drifts from shootouts to abductions and even a hostage crisis with a numb sense of inevitability, there’s nothing more harrowing than the sight of Kaylee reluctantly exposing herself to someone who’s preyed upon the invisibility of so many other girls like her.
Despite — or perhaps because of — how evocative Reis’ performance can be, “Catch the Fair One” asks her to fill in too many of its blanks. The to-the-bone succinctness of the movie’s script is engrossing through the early stretches, but a hunger for more substantial drama kicks in once Kaylee brings the fight to the scum-of-the-earth suburbanites who terrorize her community. While the action is as cold and taut as the rest of the movie, and Daniel Henshall and Kevin Dunn bring a refined air of domestic menace to their generic roles as white-collar super creeps, Wladyka lacks the finesse to sew Kaylee’s vengeance into her trauma.
Instead, the film unfolds like a razor-thin genre exercise coiled around a wound so painful that “Catch the Fair One” can only wince at it from a distance. Prolific composer Nathan Halpern (“The Rider”) strains to close the gap between the action Kaylee takes and the heartache that fuels it, but the melodrama of his music only draws more attention to the film’s reservoir of untapped feeling, and highlights its struggle to synthesize a social drama with a suspense thriller.
If that’s an impossible needle to thread for this movie, it’s nevertheless understandable why Wladyka and Reis might be wary of putting too fine a point on things, as Kaylee’s story would evaporate altogether if it hinged on some kind of tidy narrative justice. There’s a reason why the unsatisfyingly clipped finale is fringed with a sense that some losses are too great to make right, just as there’s a reason why the second act is so focused on the redemptive potential it finds in the abused wife of a sex trafficker (Tiffany Chu, excellent) who Kaylee regards first as a liability, and then as an asset. There isn’t much for “Catch the Fair One” to find at the end of the line, but it looks for its invisible women — indigenous and otherwise — with the urgency of someone who knows what seeing them would actually mean.
“Catch the Fair One” premiered in the U.S. Narrative Competition section at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.