(2021) Crime Drama (IFC) Kali Reis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Chu, Michael Drayer, Kimberly Guerrero, Lisa Emery, Kevin Dunn, Jonathan Kowalsky, Gerald Webb, Isabelle Chester, Shelly Vincent, Matt Godfrey, Emmett Printup, Jordan Smith, Rae Anna Gott, Wesley Leung, Aaron Kriegler, Sam Seward, Christine Lauer, Sheri Fairchild, Marcus, Elizabeth Manente, Mainaku Borrero. Directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka
It is a dirty little secret in modern America that indigenous women are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery at an inordinate rate. Advocacy groups report that about 90% of those taken end up murdered once their “purpose” has been served.
Kaylee “KO” Uppashaw (Reis, a boxing champion making her acting debut) prepares for a championship fight with her trainer, Brick (Vincent, also a fighter), going through the pre-fight rituals of getting taped up, having her gloves slipped on, and waiting in the wings for her introduction. She wakes up in a squalid women’s shelter. Was the championship fight a dream or a memory? We’re never sure which, but likely the former.
Kaylee works as a waitress in a diner. She has fallen into such a state where she takes uneaten food off the plates of her customers and brings it home to eat. She sleeps with a razor blade secreted in her mouth, to defend herself if she needs to protect her possesions or her life. She has fallen far from the spotlight she once occupied, and perhaps understandably so; her kid sister Weeta (Borrero) disappeared after walking home alone after visiting Kaylee who was training at her gym (Kaylee wanted to stay a little longer and work; Weeta needed to get back home). Kaylee’s guilt led to estrangement from her mother (Guerrero), the end of her boxing career, and a descent into substance abuse.
The authorities were of little help. Desperate to find her sister and perhaps find redemption, she decides to go looking for her on her own. Researching the local sex trade (the police were able to discover that Weeta was sold into a sex trafficking ring) she discovers a pair of pimps who specialize in pairing up native American women with clients who wanted them. Kaylee decides to allow herself to get into their stable. From then on, things don’t go exactly as she plans.
Basically, the second half of the movie changes tone and focus, going from an intense, emotional, gut-wrenching drama into a fairly typical action film of the revenge genre. While the fight scenes are outstanding (as you’d expect they would be), the change is jarring and makes it feel like two completely different movies were spliced together.
Reis, who hasn’t acted professionally prior to this, is a revelation. She brings a quiet intensity to her role as Kaylee. Kaylee doesn’t say a whole lot; she does her talking with her fists, her eyes and her body language. There is a confrontation with her mother early on in the movie, where she unloads a little bit: “You have a living daughter right here in front of you,” she cries as her mother, who runs a support group for families with missing children, turns to stone. It’s powerful and I wish there had been more scenes like this, showing the devastating effect Weeta’s disappearance had on her family.
This is not the kind of film you want when you’re looking for a pick-me-up; it’s dark, gritty and suffused with an air of impending tragedy. While Kaylee is hopeful that she’ll reunite with her sister, the odds are stacked against her. The ride is a bumpy one, and at times you’ll be tempted to turn away, especially at some of the more wrenching moments. This isn’t always an easy film to watch, but there’s some important material here about a problem that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. When a character with casual cruelty tells Kaylee “Nobody is looking (for her sister) because nobody cares,” he is stating the reality of the situation overall. That’s a fact that needs changing.
REASONS TO SEE: Reis shows a great deal of grit and intensity as a performer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Becomes more of a revenge action thriller in the second half, a move that doesn’t blend well with the dramatic first half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reis was the first person of mixed Native American heritage to win a boxing title. Like her character in the movie, she is of Native American and Cape Verdean descent.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trade
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Dumbo (2019)