If you’re not white, you’re black!
This indie film is no Get Out but works on a similar thematic base: racial relations, or the lack of them. Whiteness, blackness, and their conjugation in modern society might sound like a complex and sensitive creative peak. But for Nathaniel Martello-White (the irony), it is an easy scale.
There aren’t many filmmakers today who will take the challenge of challenging a protagonist’s “blackness” in their films. Or the larger question of how abandoning your roots, life, and children can emaciate your identity. The Strays profoundly exploits its fantastical exploration of chequered racial history and tension, something that seems truly out of a wild daydream.
Ashley Madekwe plays an absconding black woman, Cheryl, whose past catches up with her new identity. Her most frightening nightmares turn into a deafening reality for Cheryl and her new “suburban” family, putting them in the line of danger, when her “urban” family comes into town.
The Strays unfolds in a similar way like the recently released Sharper. It must be said that the non-linearity in the narrative potentially makes the overall look layered. Through many surfaces, we get a peek into the psyche of individual characters who take up most of the screen. This format of the story is definitely here to stay and we can expect many more entrants in the same vein ahead.
From the moment the first itch hits the back of Neve’s (formerly Cheryl) head, there is a sense of doom that starts settling in. It becomes clear the kind of film that The Strays want to be remembered as. Impressive standout cues like the colour choice of red (Carl’s cap and Dione’s gloves) add a lot of intrigue to the visual quotient of the film. Even if the intricacies are wayward and the plot seems too flushed with theatrics, the film owns those choices well. Modern horror elements that were nurtured in the cinematic world through recent films like It Follows and Suspiria are readily visible in The Strays.
But for some reason, the film is not able to fully capitalise on that feeling of menace creeping closer with every minute. It is captured well in the first segment, “Neve”, but gradually wanes and eventually falters from the beginning of the second. The more pressing themes of racial relations, abandonment, and cowardice to confront oneself converge through different characters.
For instance, Carl and Dione represent the feeling of worthlessness that can easily swipe one’s intrinsic compassion and humanity. It can potently relegate one’s standard of morality and make them irritable, violent, and filled with anger, like the brother-sister duo showcase.
Neve/Cheryl imbues selfishness in the world. It is not just about lacking something within but lacking the courage to reach deep and grasp it. There are two moments – first, at the beginning, and second, at the end – where Cheryl looks into the mirror before walking off on everything she built with so much hard work and passion.
Those moments manifest her inner turmoil and conflict, where a part of the tells her to run, while the other incredulously spectates. That dichotomy in human nature is The Strays’ most compelling offering and by far the highlight.
Perhaps the premise – no black people in an affluent white neighbourhood – might be misleading for the viewer at the beginning. There is indeed a mismatch between your expectations when you begin watching the film and by the time you end it, having witnessed something else. It is a matter of preference and that is why the creative choice by director and writer Martello-White feels so polarizing.
You can love or hate The Strays in an instant after seeing what all the fuss is about. However, it does continue to linger on in either case as it confronts your inner moral compass and sensibilities about its themes.
Madekwe gives a terrifying performance, one that is torn between emotions and circumstances in and beyond her control. On many occasions, she seems to manifest the curse from the film Smile, where you laugh and cry at the same time. Her visualization of the script is vivid and very nuanced. The Strays squarely revolves around her, although Bukky Bakray and Jordan Myrie come in strongly in the “Family Reunion” segment.
The Strays is both a political and personal film. It has clear ideas but reluctant execution. There is always a sense of inadequacy and under-confidence in how it unravels. At times, the misdirections do not seem intentional as a result. Fans of the morphed horror genre will find worth in the film but perhaps there could have been a bit more characterizations to serve it on a platter for us.
Read More: The Strays Ending Explained
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Verdict - 6/10