An inevitable discourse surrounding athletes as actors is coming down the pipe as the release of the LeBron James-starring Space Jam: A New Legacy looms over the next month. But when fans and critics ignite the conversation, whatever the consensus on the basketball superstar’s success may be, we all need to be talking about Native American boxer Kali Reis and what she achieves in the grim and grizzly thriller Catch the Fair One. Here, the fighter, who also collaborated with director Josef Kubota Wladyka on the story, harnesses a difficult energy that maintains the human element all throughout the often hard-to-watch thriller. Executive producer and auteur Darren Aronofsky’s influence is felt throughout without ever becoming overbearing, the film’s behind-the-back style evoking The Wrestler while it heads in a more dangerous direction.
Catch the Fair One is the story of a retired champion boxer who purposefully seeks out a local sex trafficking ring to go undercover in a feeble attempt to find her missing sister. Even with its quick 85-minute runtime, the film is relentless—darker than dark as it dives headfirst into a growing problem in the U.S. that so far hasn’t gotten much attention on film or in fiction. Wladyka’s ultra-grounded approach is key to the film’s success. When the story occasionally overreaches what’s plausible, the muted style and restrained execution keep the film from approaching anything even close to the Taken franchise, arguably the most commercial modern cinematic portrayal of sex trafficking. Instead, in the first act, we get long scenes with believable matter-of-fact dialogue in which Kaylee (Reis) is drugged against her will and told to spin around for a scummy everyman’s Polaroid.
With a logline like “a boxing champ infiltrates a sex trafficking ring,” Catch the Fair One is easily the kind of film that could have so easily gone off the rails. But it’s attention to detail in how Kaylee starts her search and the dark places her journey takes her allow the film to feel like it’s shedding light on something real rather than feeding us cookie-cutter villains in service of action. This is a film that doesn’t gloss over what sex trafficking really is, and just how difficult it is to solve such a crime. It’s odd to feel that this approach is radical, when indie film of the last decade has frankly done a wonderful job at least getting most of our societal issues on screen in some effective manner, but what Kaylee goes through feels surprisingly new to the big screen.
Within that, Wladyka is able to build an unbearably tense atmosphere as Reis responds to the darkness surrounding her character with a resilient yet human mix of fear and drive. Director and lead actor are wonderfully in sync here, revealing an underground world with what feels like horrifying truth all while building to a crescendo that is genuinely earned. The ending unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired, offering a taste of ambiguity that allows neither Kaylee nor us as the audience to push forward in any rewarding way concerning what the film is discussing. The warm and the cold smash together in the film’s final moments, but they don’t gel, leaving us on a somewhat cheap note.
But this failing shouldn’t deter you from experiencing Catch the Fair One. Despite it subject matter and Wladyka’s seemingly realistic approach, the film manages to entertain as a thriller, albeit a very dark one. There’s a hero with a goal to root for, and that’s ultimately what keeps the momentum strong up until the ending. A film like this, if it manages to build a cultural conversation, will help audiences understand the reality of what’s become the world’s and the country’s most horrific “industry.” Catch the Fair One is effective in its mission to start a serious cinematic discussion about sex trafficking in America, but it will be up to filmmakers with visions that looks past the crime and its horrors to continue that conversation.