Firstpost at Tribeca: Stray Dolls is a queer immigrant crime story that falls just short of exciting

Siddhant Adlakha

May 07, 2019 11:09:03 IST

(The Tribeca Film Festival 2019 runs from 24 April to 5 May. Firstpost will be posting movie reviews from the independent film festival held in New York City.)

On paper, Sonejuhi Sinha’s Stray Dolls ought to be a straightforward crime thriller. Its leads, a pair of young women far from home and trapped working at a seedy motel, play like Thelma and Louise in search of the right car. A cavalcade of supporting players waltz in and out of their orbit, and they find themselves drawn reluctantly toward not only criminality, but to each other — a welcome deviation from the genre's norms. Though where the film fully stands apart from its peers, despite its many misgivings and stretches of sparse story, is in its immigrant-saga blueprint.

Firstpost at Tribeca: Stray Dolls is a queer immigrant crime story that falls just short of exciting

A still from Stray Dolls. Twitter

Stray Dolls feels like a crime film lasered on to a tale of a sheltered Indian girl, thrown into the (relatively) chaotic world of American college or high school. A double-edged comparison; on one hand, the beats of the film feel emotionally honest; Sinha, herself an immigrant to the US (she moved when she was 13) knows how to capture the subtleties of cultural outsidership. On the other, the film often meanders without fully embracing the “crime thriller” aspect of its aesthetic transposition. The aforementioned subtleties, while potent, rarely add up to an emotionally satisfying whole. It is a shame, since the film feels one pass away from enthralling.

The quiet, subdued Riz (Geetanjali Thapa of Sacred Games-fame) has recently arrived in middle-of-nowhere US, where she finds herself under the strict employ of Una (Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City-fame), the Eastern European owner of a dingy, neon-lit motel that happens to be a hotbed for crime. Una holds on to Riz’s passport and forces her to room with the outgoing, hot-headed Dallas (Olivia DeJonge of The Visit-fame).

Both women are outsiders. Riz, an immigrant, speaks Nepali on her long-distance phone calls, while Dallas’ southern twang sticks out like a sore thumb. They both work as housekeepers, though before they have had a chance to get acquainted, Dallas takes hold of Riz’s belongings and forces her to steal coke from Sal (Samrat Chakrabarti of NCIS-fame), an Indian dealer who frequents the motel. The one connection Riz might’ve made with someone from a familiar culture is sullied early on. Though, unbeknownst to them, Sal is the type of person who attracts even more trouble. And so, Riz and Dallas begin their descent, biting off far more than they can chew. Even Dallas’ on-again, off-again hookup Jimmy (Robert Aramayo of Game of Thrones-fame) seems unable to handle the oncoming complications, despite being the motel owner’s daughter.

In the process of navigating low-key crimes to find a way out of the motel, Dallas and Jimmy inadvertently get Riz to leave her shell. She is reluctant, though with enough illicit drugs in her system (and enough of a dopamine rush after petty thefts), she warms up to them — especially to Dallas, with whom she slowly finds honest companionship, both physical and emotional.

Thapa and DeJonge have a fascinating chemistry. The former crafts Riz through contemplative silence broken up by sudden bursts of pent up energy, while the latter’s Dallas is the opposite. She is a livewire. Though when circumstances finally become dire, she is forced to submit to the quiet stillness of their rural locale. In these moments, Riz steps in to pick up the slack, helping Dallas believe there is still a way for her to live unshackled from the motel (and from Una). Though while both lead actresses shine, they are also forced to do the bulk of the heavylifting.

Stray Dolls, for the most part, keeps Riz and Dallas at arm’s length from the audience, without really meaning to. Both characters talk about being trapped, but this rarely translates to anything beyond words. They are usually shot with plenty of space around them in the frame, and they make no real attempts to leave. We never feel trapped alongside them, nor do we get a glimpse into their emotional or physical curiosities, or the things they hope to do when liberated. Riz talks to her mother about bringing her over to the US and about visiting Niagara Falls, but beyond a television playing Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, there is little beyond presumption about the immigration hoops she might have to jump through, where instead there could have been tension, or exhaustion, or dramatised frustration.

While the film bursts to life in the moments it breaks from reality — one drug-induced hallucination in particular revolves around milkshakes, and it is an utter delight — rare are the beats we get to experience from Riz’s perspective. The ones grounded in literal reality tend to feel disconnected. For instance, we barely see what Dallas actually takes from Riz that sets this domino effect in motion (one item appears to be a photograph, but it is unclear) and so there is little tethering us to Riz when she makes life-altering decisions.

In the process, the quiet spaces of the physical and emotional constructs of the film, which run rampant in its third act, are left with little to say. The bleak, borderline satirical take on belonging and the American dream works as if it were an anecdote. But it lacks the oomph to land viscerally.

Updated Date: May 07, 2019 17:35:45 IST

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