Catch the Fair One

Josef Kubota Wladyka’s debut is a bleak yet gripping scream on behalf of a forgotten people.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by the film’s UK distributor, Vertigo Releasing.

“Do you think I remember their names?” pointedly asks one of the targets ex-boxer Kaylee (Kali Reis) confronts near the climax of writer-director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s debut feature, Catch the Fair One.  A Native American woman, she has been searching for the past two years for her younger sister, Weeta (Mainaku Borrero), who was kidnapped one night by sex traffickers whilst she was training for a big fight.  Kaylee, who fell hard into drug addiction as a result of Weeta’s disappearance and completely wrecked her relationship with her mother (Kimberly Guerrero) in the process, has been single-mindedly fixated on the hope that she can find somebody in the group who personally shipped off her sister and subsequently pull the location of Weeta’s whereabouts from them.  Up until now, she could fall back on the belief that they’re simply not giving up Weeta’s location out of personal spite.  But this line, delivered with no smugness and only minor incredulity born from the old White man believing it to be so obvious that it shouldn’t need explaining, guts the heart of both Kaylee and the viewer.

Catch the Fair One is a revenge drama, one with a pervasive tension and many sequences both sudden and elongated of gruesome violence visited upon both Kaylee and her perpetrators that a viewer would expect from such a genre piece.  But this is not a cathartic and righteous take on the material.  This, as that line should’ve made all too clear, is a realistic revenge drama in the vein of Jeremy Saulnier’s filmography albeit minus any trace of levity whatsoever.  Kaylee is strong but certainly not infallible and has to take her targets down by surprise, very little satisfaction comes from her tunnel-vision trudge deeper into this hole, whilst Wladyka and cinematographer Ross Giardina play in the same chilly blue tints and dingy artificial light sources to invoke the Saulnier spirit even before we venture outwards to snowy plains.

Photo by Ross Giardina. © 2020 Vertigo Releasing.

Resultantly, this is a bleak and gruelling film to witness unfold, particularly as it becomes ever clearer that the eventual destination will offer no reprieve.  Specifically, it’s bleak in the degree with which it focuses on the unresolvable emotional trauma that is inflicted upon the families of the victims stolen by traffickers, rather than depicting the sexual violence and dehumanisation the victims themselves face.  (Tellingly, the one instance that Kaylee finds herself in such a situation, the man is rack-focussed into a blurry haze whilst the camera instead remains focussed on her drugged face; empathising on the emotional consequences rather than risk fetishizing the physical consequences of the act.)  One of the Fair One’s most distressing scenes actually comes long before Kaylee sets out on her infiltration gambit, giving us a brief glimpse into a community support group her mother runs for other Indigenous people who lost relatives to unsolved kidnappings.  The raw emotion of the story shared with a group, that hurt which cannot go away, punctuated by a wide-angle shot of a missing persons board filled with pictures of people just like Weeta.  They remember the names, and Wladyka’s film screams in pain for those unable to.

Whilst those wider social consciousness intentions are inseparable – Wladyka and Reis came up with the story together as part of her ongoing effort to raise awareness of this crisisCatch the Fair One functions foremost as a dedicated character-centric story about the path to self-forgiveness.  Although it lacks conventional genre thrills and theatrics, Wladyka’s film has the gripping momentum and arresting tension required to keep it away from any dreaded ‘elevated [x]’ tag.  Violence is brutal and bloody with squirm-inducing sound design.  The cinematography favours either intimate near-Steadicam close-ups (usually of Kaylee) or wide-angle static shots emphasising austere isolation; ghost town streets and gilded cage McMansions.  Nathan Halpern’s score is heavy on the ominous drones but to a degree which befits the singular mood Fair One as a whole is going for.

Photo by Ross Giardina. © 2020 Vertigo Releasing.

Most notably, the film has Kali Reis.  Athletes-turned-actors are often dicey prospects even when casting them in material which plays to their strengths – just take a look at the ‘performances’ given by Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey in almost anything they were cast in.  But Reis, an active World Champion boxer at time of writing, immediately leaps over such contemporaries with her work here.  In certain respects, much like Steven Soderbergh tried to with Carano in Haywire, Wladyka and Reis write around her limitations by keeping dialogue for Kaylee to a relative minimum, but what dialogue she has is very convincingly delivered whether it be a testy tear-soaked confrontation with her on-screen mother or growled threats of torture to the trafficker’s supposed ringleader.

Much of Reis’ performance is physical.  The way she carries herself, her presence, how she adjusts her body language in ways that indicate a vulnerability beneath Kaylee’s tough-looking exterior.  The moments when she shifts her demeanour or drops her shoulders in private as if the weight of what she’s gotten herself into have finally been allowed to crash all over her.  There’s a particular scene late-on that asks Reis to process a multitude of complex emotions – hope, despair, performative strength, fear, resignation – in a largely wordless manner with just her facial and body languages, and she pulls it off expertly.  You can witness generations of trauma rush through her screaming in silence as uncaring non-Indigenous faces continue to shamelessly exploit America’s forgotten for their own self-interest.

Catch the Fair One is available on VOD from 4th April.

Callie Petch made it to the border, jumped and was detained.

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