June 27, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “Catch the Fair One” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A former boxing champ goes on a dangerous vendetta to find out what happened to her missing younger sister.
Culture Audience: “Catch the Fair One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful thrillers that explore issues of human trafficking, race and social class.
How far would you go to search for a missing loved one? It’s question that viewers will think about when watching the dramatic film “Catch the Fair One,” which is about a tough boxer who goes on a difficult and often-violent journey to look for her missing younger sister, whom she believes has been kidnapped by human traffickers. Anchored by a memorable performance by Kali Reis, “Catch the Fair One” is more than just a crime vendetta story. It’s also about inequalities in race and social class, told from a Native American perspective that’s rarely shown on screen.
“Catch the Fair One,” written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. And it’s easy to see why the movie won the festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. What could have been a very formulaic and predictable story is really a taut thriller that takes a few unexpected twists and turns along the way while letting viewers see the world through the viewpoint of a very unique character.
Some viewers might have a hard time believing that Reis’ Kaylee Uppeshaw character can be capable of doing some of the extreme things that she does in the movie and still keep going. But viewers who might be put off by any seemingly improbable moments have to remember that Kaylee is someone who’s desperate and feels like she’s got nothing left to lose. It goes a long way in explaining many of her reckless actions.
Kaylee, whose nickname is K.O., used to be a boxer until a back injury essentially ended her boxing career. The movie doesn’t mention where in the U.S. that this story takes place, but “Catch the Fair One” was actually filmed in New York state. Kaylee now lives in a women’s shelter and works as a waitress at a small diner. And she’s apparently so financially desperate that she steals food from the diner’s kitchen. The diner’s manager Missy (played by Faye Lone) is aware of this theft, so she discreetly tells Kaylee that if Kaylee ever needs food, she can tell the kitchen workers before her shift, and they will set aside food for her.
Kaylee used to be an International Boxing Association middleweight champ (just like Reis in real life), but was never super-famous. Kaylee did well-enough in boxing that she became a local hero of sorts. (There are flahsback scenes of Kaylee boxing, so viewers can see how talented she is.) While working at the diner one day, a teenage boy approaches Kaylee and asks to take a selfie photo with her. She politely obliges. When the fan asks Kaylee why she doesn’t box anymore, she says it’s because of her bad back.
There’s a lot more than an abbreviated boxing career or her back injury that bothers Kaylee. She’s haunted by the disappearance of her younger teenage half-sister Weeta Uppeshaw, who has been missing since November 23, 2017. (Weeta, who is shown in photos and flashbacks, is played by Mainaku Borrero.) Kaylee attends a support group for loved ones of missing and murdered children, but it doesn’t really ease much of her pain.
Kaylee is biracial: Her mother Jaya (played by Kimberly Guerrero) is Native American, while her father (who is not seen in the movie) is of Cape Verdean heritage. Although she is biracial, Kaylee identifies as Native American, and almost everyone in her social circle is Native American, including her closest friend/trainer Brick (played by Shelly Vincent), a very butch-looking lesbian. However, Kaylee has a strained relationship with her mother.
There are several different reasons why this mother and daughter could be estranged from each other, but one of the main reasons seems to be that Jaya might blame Kaylee for Weeta’s disappearance. It’s assumed that Weeta has been kidnapped, because she’s described as a good and obedient teenager who wouldn’t run away. The question that haunts Weeta’s family and other loved ones is: Is Weeta dead or alive?
Kaylee also happens to be a lesbian or queer woman, and there are hints that Kaylee’s mother doesn’t approve of Kaylee’s sexual identity. There’s a scene in the movie where Kaylee meets with her mother to reluctantly ask for some money. Kaylee mentions that she broke up with a girlfriend named Megan two years ago, while her mother doesn’t seem to care to discuss Kaylee’s love life.
And there’s another reason why Kaylee and her mother have tension in their relationship: Kaylee is a recovering opioid addict (heroin was her drug of choice), so when she asks her mother for money, Jaya responds by saying that she won’t give Kaylee any money unless she’s certain that Kayla is really clean and sober. It’s an emotionally charged scene, filled with simmering resentments that partially come to the surface. Kaylee angrily blurts out to her mother to admit that Jaya wishes that Kaylee, not Weeta, should be been the daughter who went missing. Jaya never admits it, but this outburst is an example of how, even before Weeta’s disappearance, Kaylee felt like her mother treated her as inferior to Weeta.
Early on in the movie, a private investigator tells Kaylee that he has reason to believe that Weeta has been kidnapped by sex traffickers. Brick knows some shady characters, and one of them is a blonde prostitute named Lisa (played by Isabelle Chester), who secretly meets with Brick and Kaylee because the word is out that Kaylee is desperate to find Weeta. Lisa says that she recruits prostitutes for a thug named Danny (played by Michael Drayer), who uses the nickname The Bird. Lisa shows Kayla a picture of a teen prostitute who looks like Weeta, and she tells Lisa that this teenager currently works for a pimp named Bobby (played by Daniel Henshall), who is Danny’s boss.
This information sets Kaylee off on quest by herself to find Bobby, because she figures that once she finds Bobby, she might find Weeta or at least information on where Weeta could be. The rest of the movie shows what happens on this treacherous journey, which also involves Bobby’s other family members: his wife Linda (played by Tiffany Chu); their underage son Bobby Jr. (played by Wesley Leung); Bobby’s father Willie (played by Kevin Dunn); and Bobby’s mother Debra (played by Lisa Emery).
Danny and Jeremiah (played by Sam Seward) are among the henchmen who come up against Kaylee, who is a formidable opponent. One of Kaylee’s quirks is that she keeps a razor blade hidden in her mouth, even when she’s sleeping. There’s a lot of brutal violence in the movie, including a home invasion that involves kidnapping, torture and murder. However, no matter what Kaylee does that can be considered heinous, Reis never loses humanity in her portrayal of Kaylee, who feels that she has run out of options. Kaylee might seem to be gritty and stoic, but her vulnerability is never far from the surface.
Kaylee does not have any plan except to find her sister, so she gets caught up in extreme situations that she does not anticipate. Although it’s not said outright in the movie, the context of her desperate search is that Kaylee has taken the law into her own hands because the police don’t care about finding a Native American girl, even a “good girl” like Weeta. If you consider that countless Native American females go missing, but their disappearances are rarely covered by the media, it’s easy to see why Kaylee feels that she’s not going to sit around and hope that law enforcement or the media will help in her search for Kaylee.
The 2017 crime thriller “Wind River” touched on this problem of U.S. law enforcement often sidelining Native American female crime victims, compared to white females who are victims of the same crimes. There’s no political preaching in “Catch the Fair One,” but the overtones about race and social class are there when it’s shown who are the men in charge of this human trafficking ring and why they feel so emboldened. “Catch the Fair One” does not offer any simple solutions to this systemic problem, because simple solutions realistically and tragically often don’t exist.
UPDATE: IFC Films will release “Catch the Fair One” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 11, 2022.