When Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) seeks employment in a motel on the outskirts of an unnamed US city, she hopes to leave a life of petty crime behind in her native India – only to find that making it in America isn’t an easy task, especially for a young, undocumented woman. When she meets fellow worker and roommate Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), their relationship morphs from antagonistic to something tender as they both become enveloped in a crime that quickly takes on a life of its own.
As polar opposites, Dallas and Riz’s relationship begins with a fight as two women butt heads and Riz’s few meagre belongings are taken, only to be returned when she has stolen something worthwhile from one of the rooms they clean in return. When Riz finds and takes a key of cocaine from motel resident Sal’s (Samrat Chakbarati) locked suitcase, the consequences of their actions quickly catch up with them and the two women not only have to navigate a dangerous world that they have only previously skirted around the edges of, but also deal with their relationship between each other – as well as Dalla’s “boyfriend” Jimmy (Robert Aramayo).
Both Thapa and Dejonge, while still early in their careers, provide strong performances through Stray Dolls as two young women with nothing to lose. Their slow, and often rocky relationship moves between moments of happiness glimpsed amongst the danger: Dallas has no qualms about spiking Riz’s drink when they head to the motel’s Halloween party, leaving her open and vulnerable, but will rescue her from the man trying to take advantage when she is spaced out. DeJonge portrays Dallas as a woman whose heart is very much worn on her sleeve – despite the spiky appearance she tries to present to the world.
Dreaming of owning her own nail salon, she and Jimmy – the son of the motel’s owner Una (Cynthia Nixon) – have big plans: sell the cocaine, rob Una and make off into the sunset with all the money they can carry. Despite this future, so clearly mapped out, Dallas quickly adapts the plans to involve Riz when it becomes clear that they are in this together, highlighting that she is not as hard as she makes out.
Thapa‘s portrayal of Riz is also one of depth and unacknowledged layers, almost as a mirror opposite to Dallas. Initially shy, she quickly reveals her own confidence and determination, as well as slowly unwrapping a past of petty crime that she was so desperate to leave in India, but has followed her despite her best efforts. In a phone box, early one morning as the sun begins to creep up behind the clouds, she describes the motel’s (non-existent) pool in details to a friend back home, the slight shake in her voice revealing how desperately she wishes the situation was different, but also her determination to get out of the predicament by any means necessary.
Neon Lights at Night
Director Sonejuhi Sinha stated that she wanted to provide a new cinematic language for exploring immigrant stories, her direction along with DOP Shane Sigler‘s camerawork have the film looking more like a neon-soaked shot from Drive, or a more muted Enter the Void. Vibrant pink and sickly green-blue light up the shadows that linger along the corridors and cramped rooms of the Tidal Palms motel, as the two young women move from room to room the dejected surroundings almost uplifted by the lighting.
There is very little natural light allowed to penetrate the inner world of Dallas and Riz, windows are covered by thin net curtains for an illusion of privacy in such an impersonal environment meaning that the interiors are permanently muted. There are few shots where Dallas and Riz move easily outside in the daylight, and this is always dimmed by grey clouds that linger over the very un-exotic motel complex. They are worlds away from the sunshine of Florida or the vibrancy of a big city, and instead their positions as undocumented immigrants, drug users and those who have slipped through the cracks is reflected in the artistic choices of Sinha and her collaborators.
The True American Dream?
Stray Dolls is very much a reflection of life during the presidency of Trump: as Riz scrubs clean the floor of the office, a news broadcast plays his remarks about immigration, the need to “protect our boarders” and how this repeated message of intolerance plays over the lives of the women and men who have worked to make America their home, often undertaking the labour that is seen as “low-skilled” and unworthy of recognition: cleaners, hospital porters, builders.
Riz’s journey to America is somewhat paralleled in the own experiences of Una, the Eastern European motel owner played by Cynthia Nixon, whose own ruthless approach towards the women she employs is highlighted during her first scene in which she promises to look after Riz’s passport before coldly shredding the document. Like Riz, Una is too trying to survive – but having reached a modicum of success she is now trying to provide her son Jimmy with a better life. As a second-generation immigrant Jimmy is loath to take part in Una’s plan for his life as he does not see his future as the manager of the motel, but instead one of freedom.
Nixon‘s performance, complete with cod accent is one of the weaker points of the film – she is given little to do, and consequently does nothing with what she does have. Her character is more of a symbolic representation of those first-generation immigrants that have settled into the America that they long to assimilate into.
The American Dream rings hollow in Sonejuhi Sinha‘s Stray Dolls, an examination of life on the outskirts of society where recent and long-settled immigrants, and those whom society has rejected, scrabble for a living where best they can. With strong performances by the young cast, and beautiful cinematography that skims the line between seedy and lurid, Stray Dolls is an intriguing crime drama with an important insight into a forgotten and left behind part of American society.
Stray Dolls shows a section of society that is over-looked. What films do you like that show a different world that you are used to? Let us know in the comments below.
Stray Dolls was premiered on April 10th in the USA. No UK release date at time of publication.
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