Tribeca Film Review: ‘Stray Dolls’ Goes Astray

2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Crime dramas work best when the element of curiosity and anxiety drive audiences to the end of the film, with kinetic energy in every frame. Audiences need not feel for the criminal, or even the victim, but there should exist an inquiring mind actively predicting the final act. For “Stray Dolls,” these mind olympics just are not the case. Petty crimes occur, then occur again, but there’s nothing to elicit any emotional reaction. Though not the intent of the filmmakers, the movie comes off cold and devoid of purpose. Any attempts at character building are surface level, at best. It’s a shame too, as there’s some lucid cinematography on display. All elements considered, however, this appears to be a case of wasted potential.

“Stray Dolls” wants to earn favor for having the women at the center of the story taking their lives back by any means necessary. Had the story been told in a more receptive manner, that would have been the case. Instead, it’s a situation where audience can only casually observe the characters, but never invest themselves. There is an opportunity to engage with these characters, not just merely observe them.  “Stray Dolls” opts to show but never tell.

Upon arriving in America, Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) gains employment as a maid at a seedy motel run by Una (Cynthia Nixon). Trusting, but not quite as innocent as she seems, Riz is hoping to keep her head down and make money to bring her family to the United States. No sooner does Una assure her that she runs a clean business does she shred Riz’s passport and rooms her with the bad seed Dallas (Olivia DeJonge). Initially, Dallas is abusive to Riz and sees her as a nuisance. However, once she proves useful in illegal activities, a partnership blooms.

One crime leads to another, and soon Riz is just as complicit as Dallas in various misdeeds. Together, along with Dallas’ boyfriend Jimmy (Robert Aramayo), they begin to plan a way out of town. Their scheme involves drugs, money, and plenty of theft. Complicating matters further is the superstitious nature of everyone in this orbit, as well as the matter of Jimmy’s mother being Una.

The performances in “Stray Dolls” are a mixed bag. Geetanjali Thapa and Olivia DeJonge are apt, even though the script does them a number of disservices. The former is a blank slate who slowly takes more and more control of her life, while the latter is a constant ball of drug-addled fury. It’s interesting work, however, Cynthia Nixon is disappointingly broad in a key supporting role. Her involvement certainly heightens awareness of the project, though her turn is less than noteworthy. Robert Aramayo and the rest of the supporting cast fare no better. DeJonge and Thapa do their best to elevate the material, even if they come up slightly short.

Director and co-writer Sonejuhi Sinha brings a keen sense of style to “Stray Dolls.” Her direction, especially in terms of how she utilizes the cinematography from Shane Sigler, is commendable. Unfortunately, the screenplay she penned with Charlotte Rabate hobbles the visuals. Characters at the margins like this need some entry point in order to grab emotional interest. Otherwise, they’re just young women making poor choices, with nothing more to bring to the table. What was needed was more investment in these characters. The worse the choices are being made, the more Rabate and Sinha fail to give them a sympathetic angle. Instead, it’s merely desperate people becoming more and more violent.

With a little more emotion, “Stray Dolls” could have been a crime drama that gets under the skin and stays there. Instead, it merely teases at its own potential. Had Sinha brought that to the picture, this Tribeca entry would have been rather notable. Sadly, this wasn’t meant to be. Whatever the intent was here, it’s a muddled message, destined to be lost in translation.

Stray Dolls” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27 and is currently seeking distribution.

GRADE: (★★½)