Dir. Nathaniel Martello-White (2023)
A Black woman, who desperately seeks to pass as white, finds her life turned upside down with the appearance of two strangers in her small town.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
One of the formative moments of my life was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was a young adult. Growing up in the South, I always viewed racism as something that wasn’t nearly as prevalent as the media would indicate, and I felt that the “racism caricature” that the rest of the country insisted was reality in the modern South never quite rang true as something that actually existed. There was prejudice, to be sure, and there were certainly off-color jokes, but that wasn’t quite the same as Jim Crow, fire hoses, and slavery in my young eyes. While I am certainly not pretending to be a paragon of color-blindness, and I have spent a fair portion of my life blind indeed to the injustices that are endemic to the overall American way of life, I generally felt that I was right and that the racism naysayers were making mountains of molehills and painting white hoods over the faces of every white person regardless of character. Malcom X and Alex Haley presented me with a different set of facts, an experiential tale of growing up Black in America that couldn’t be dismissed as the accusations of someone on the attack or the insinuations of someone who wanted to win a few political points. Malcolm X spoke of being a “pink poodle,” an ornamental novelty that stood in the corner as furniture rather than a person who could understand that things you were saying and doing. He spoke of the horrors of trying to fit into white society as a Black youth, at one point bleaching and straightening his hair through horrifically painful cosmetic procedures in an attempt to become “more white.” It is through this lens that I tried to view The Strays, a modern story of an experience that goes back generations, where trying to fit into white culture becomes a horror on its own when your past can never be truly left in the past.
I fear, however, that I have oversold the film itself. The Strays is not a particularly good movie, but rather a caricature of the Black experience of its own. The actors all do a fine job, and director Nathaniel Martello-White certainly shoots a beautiful picture, but it’s all rather blasé and cookie cutter in the end. It’s a cut and paste of better films, clearly taking mountains of inspiration from Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, with a little bit of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games thrown in for good measure. None of the characters are particularly relatable and the film’s audience will certainly struggle to empathize with any of them once its all said and done. It’s a film that feels like it desperately wanted to speak without having anything noteworthy to say, a movie with a decent plot that just couldn’t seem to capitalize on anything that it sets up for itself.
One of the things I’ve very much enjoyed in recent horror are title cards, those brief introductions to each act that hearkens back to the bygone era of film reels and drive-ins. It seems like every director nowadays wants to introduce the next part of the movie with words emblazoned on the screen, ushering in the next sequence in an intriguing and interesting way. The Strays uses title cards to its own detriment, slapping up some exposition in print so that we know where the story is heading without ever feeling the need to deliver the same message through the visual aspects of the film. Jumping backwards and forwards in time is shown by a graphic that says “years later,” or “five days ago,” or something of that ilk. It’s not something that accomplished directors tend to do because it’s much better to show than to tell, something that was sorely lacking in much of this film.
There is certainly a good movie within these bones. The desire to pass as white, or at least the necessity to feel as if you have to, is traumatic in and of itself. There are more than a few horrors inherent to the Black community, and socially-focused horror is certainly never going to go away. The Strays just feels more cashgrab than anything else, an attempt to take capitalize off of the popularity of those more well-received films. I don’t in any way intend to make light of any experiences that Martello-White has critiqued through his film, and perhaps I’m far from the target audience. Regardless, The Strays makes allusions to a bigger payoff than it delivers, and it seeks to make social allegories simply for the sake of social allegories. It’s a well-made film, and it certainly has some excellent performances within. It just falls far short of its predecessors, something that would not be a crime if it were not for its intense reliance on the films that came before. This is why Jordan Peele doesn’t make movies for Netflix.
Who this movie is for: Social horror fans, British film lovers, Soccer moms
Bottom line: The Strays is a movie that falls short of its promise by delivering a rehash of much better films. The story is decent, and there was definitely a way to go about telling it that would’ve made a fantastic film. Unfortunately, it fails to adequately speak to its ideas in a way that is coherent and impactful. If you’re looking for a film with some better-than-decent performances without caring too much for groundbreaking social commentary, perhaps The Strays will be up your alley. It wasn’t up mine