Tribeca Film Festival: Stray Dolls (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Stray Dolls (2019) has several elements that, when looked at individually, work quite well. However, as a cohesive film, the scenes seem to want to be connected causally, yet they constantly seem to be at odds with each other instead. The themes that the film tries to play with never fully develop, as if it had something to say, but couldn’t quite articulate just what that was. Thus, the conclusion of the film left me speechless and trying to articulate just what I liked and what I didn’t.

Stray Dolls does some things…and some stuff

Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) has just come to America and meets Una (Cynthia Nixon), who gives her a job at a motel that also provides her with a place to stay. Her room is shared with Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), who initially threatens and steals most of Riz’s belongings, insisting that Riz begins stealing from the rooms she cleans for Dallas in order to get her stuff back. Riz shows an aptitude, despite her apprehension for this lifestyle – and the two begin to form a bond.

The relationship between Dallas and Riz is certainly the strongest part of the film. It doesn’t feel like this is the real goal of the movie, but the bond the two girls form as they commit one petty crime after another in an effort to escape their current situation is compelling. The two are juxtaposed thematically – Riz has come seeking the “American Dream”, while Dallas definitely doesn’t truly believe in the ideology, despite seeking her own twisted version of that freedom. The chemistry between the two actresses is believable, and most of the interactions between the friends are convincing, which makes the audience hope that they’ll find a way out of their increasingly challenging positions.

Going back to the idea of the “American Dream” is one of the major themes that doesn’t quite feel fully realized by the end of the film. Sure, it’s clear that is what Riz is chasing, and it is safe to say that filmmaker Sonejuhi Sinha doesn’t believe that it is truly feasible in the current political climate. A scene at one point has a clip of President Trump discussing illegal immigration or something along those lines on a TV at the motel. This, coupled with Riz’s phone calls home promising to send money and lying about her current living situation, make this idea clear. However, I never fully grasped what I was supposed to do with that element. There is no real explanation of how Riz found herself in this current situation. Character elements that are revealed through the course of the film imply that perhaps she came to the US with no real plans or options in the first place. It appears this was more of an attempt at starting over, but she just finds herself repeating the sins of her past.

This could mean, of course, that the theme is really about not being able to escape who we truly are. This is a part of the “dream”,  isn’t it? The idea that no matter what station you start your life in, you are actually able to overcome it thanks to the goodness of capitalism where the hard working are rewarded. If so, the film hints at this idea – but it never really does anything to clearly express it.

The crimes the girls find themselves committing always seem like they are going to be significant, but are instead often resolved in quick ways that feel anti-climatic. The first item Riz steals seems to be a plot point, yet it is forgotten for huge chunks of the movie. When it does come back, it again feels significant…though not based on the plotting of the film, but the clear weight the item seems to represent. Nothing about it ever makes complete sense, and again there are so many moments where it just fades away.

Final thoughts…

In the end, Stray Dolls wasn’t very good but showed some potential. I was most impressed with DeJonge, who I sort of liked in the Visit (2015) and loved in Better Watch Out (2016). I believe if the film was a little more focused, it could be a bit better. There were some very interesting choices with the sound design that I think made the film a bit more enjoyable. Still, Stray Dolls earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.

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