Stray Dolls


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Stray Dolls
"Brilliantly composed, Stray Dolls finds beauty as well as ugliness in these desperate lives."

A stranger comes to town, taciturn and world-weary, hoping to find work and quietly build a new life. Meets a blonde who is sometimes wild, sometimes fragile, up to her neck in trouble and looking for someone to share it with. You've seen this film. Your know where this goes. Except...

Except that the stranger is Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a young Indian woman who has spent the whole of her savings from a life of petty crime on getting herself smuggled into the US. Arriving at a run-down motel somewhere in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, she takes on work as a cleaner and is given a room to share with 20-year-old femme fatale Dallas (Olivia DeJonge). She wants to earn an honest living and partake in the American dream, but Dallas wants to get out of town, sees money as essential to doing so, and sees Riz as a means to get that. Before she knows it, Riz is caught up with break-ins, stolen cocaine and murder. And as her fascination with this very different woman turns into something more deeply felt, Dallas' dishonest intentions may just be complicated by feelings of her own.

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A raw, bruising portrait of life at the bottom of the heap, where exploitation is taken for granted and everyone's primary focus is survival, Sonejuhi Sinha's feature début draws on her years of experience as an editor. Brilliantly composed, it finds beauty as well as ugliness in these desperate lives. Towards the end, the soundtrack incorporates Some Velvet Morning, and the song's evocation of the classical Phaedra seems to sum up the spirit of the film. She often appears in art and literature to represent a passion so intense that it becomes the whole focus of being, a thing worth celebrating even as it leads inevitably to destruction. Yet when Dallas' extremes are balanced by Riz's practicality and focus, you'll find yourself hoping that, just this once, they get away with everything.

There's good supporting work here from Robert Aramayo as local thief Jimmy, "not the brightest of bulbs" as Dallas puts it but still capable of pushing her around whilst she tells herself she's in love with him. Samrat Chakrabarti makes a brief but memorable appearance as a motel guest who thinks that their shared national origin means he can buy sexual favours from Riz, and Cynthia Nixon is the cool headed motel manager who has somehow stayed in top of all the local trouble for years - not the kind of woman you want to mess with.

Thapa and DeJonge are perfectly balanced leads. The former gets the meatier role, showing us the conflict beneath Riz's quiet demeanour as she's forced into one moral compromise after another, whilst the latter brings depth to a character whom we have too often seen - at the hands of male directors - reduced to a cheap fantasy. The sexual scenes are telling, erotic without requiring female nudity, focused as much on faces as on bodies and less about simple titillation than character development. Around them, a landscape of pinks, reds and purples, the constant presence of make-up (even as a possible means of murder), and Shane Sigler's dreamy cinematography combine to create a world that is always sensual. one is reminded of some of the work of Jennifer Reeder, but Sinha's voice is her own.

A neon-lit noir that has no use for Hollywood gloss, Stray Dolls tugs at the heartstrings when not slapping you in the face. Like Dallas, it knows how to use inconstancy to reel you in, and no matter what you think you know, you may well find it impossible to resist.

Reviewed on: 10 Apr 2020
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Stray Dolls packshot
Riz is a recent South Asian immigrant who takes a job at a seedy motel in a bid to start over in America. The motel’s other employees and guests pull her back into a life she preferred to leave behind.
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Director: Sonejuhi Sinha

Writer: Charlotte Rabate, Sonejuhi Sinha

Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Olivia DeJonge, Robert Aramayo, Geetanjali Thapa, Samrat Chakrabarti, Alyssa Maria App, Shiloh Verrico, Kelvin McGrue, Yvette Williams, John Schiappa, David Tuttle, Cynthia Nixon, Olivia DeJonge, Robert Aramayo, Geetanjali Thapa

Year: 2019

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2019

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