starring Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia DeJonge, Robert Aramayo, Cynthia Nixon
written by Charlotte Rabate & Sonejuhi Sinha
directed by Sonejuhi Sinha
by Walter Chaw Its title calling back to both Akira Kurosawa's seminal noir Stray Dog and Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang's miserablist masterpiece Stray Dogs, Sonejuhi Sinha's Stray Dolls would fit most comfortably on a double-bill with Sean Baker's The Florida Project. Like it, Stray Dolls is set almost entirely in the impoverished world of permanent-residence motels, where the desperate do their best to grab their slice of the pie. Unlike Baker's film, Sinha's is essentially a crime movie centred on two room-cleaners: rough-and-tumble Dallas (Olivia DeJonge) and her roomie, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), from whom Dallas immediately steals her belongings and holds them as ransom. The price? Riz must steal something from a guest's room that Dallas can turn over for a quick buck. The stakes are high for Riz, who, as we see in the first of the film's cynical turns, has her passport confiscated by her employer, Una (Cynthia Nixon), who immediately, surreptitiously shreds it. Riz is well and truly on her own, more than she knows, even: marooned in a strange land without allies or papers.
Things come to a head when Dallas and Jimmy plan to break into a school and bring Riz along for the ride. I love a moment where Dallas reads the hopeful messages the kids have written on one of those art projects that ends up hung up in the hallway. It's a glimpse of a world of suburban normalcy closed off for these people by their poverty-circumscribed opportunities. Stray Dolls is riddled with little moments of recognition like this. When Dallas realizes at last that her desperate desire to have someone to trust in her life is likely as impossible for her as climbing the social ladder, it happens in a motel parking lot, and Sinha gives her a long moment of...what is it? Resignation begins to describe it but doesn't entirely suffice; it's a universal expression of disappointment and there's power to it. Riz, though, is the centre of this film, and it's in the process of her finding her footing in her new circumstances where Stray Dolls burns. While it's fraught in this climate to make a movie where an immigrant is something less than a saint, Stray Dolls leans into the idea that the state of the country as it is does more to radicalize its most desperate tenants than provide for them the option of thriving another way.
In her first week on these shores, Riz is preyed upon by every single person she meets. It becomes clear by the middle of the film that whatever horrors of poverty and oppression forced her to flee her country have caught up with her here. Stray Dogs is brutal about its realities, and in Riz it finds an expression of defiance and resilience. Riz adapts to being roofied, adapts to being menaced, adapts to having her identity and belongings stolen. She tells Dallas to stop being an idiot and relying on other people, and the closing shot of the film suggests that Dallas is ready to take Riz's advice at last. The polar opposite of the ending to Thelma & Louise, this feminist manifesto has its heroes riding off into an apocalyptic night freed from bondage and, crucially, alive to wreak whatever havoc is theirs by right to wreak. Were the bad guys, in the end, less central-casting and more mundane, Stray Dolls would be something like a neo-neorealist masterpiece. As it stands, it's a cathartic yawp announcing the arrival of a vibrant, raw voice in Sinha. I can't wait to see what she does next.