Directed by Musa Syeed
Opens October 21 at IFP’s Made in NY Media Center
I really didn’t want to dislike Musa Syeed’s A Stray—a nicely lensed, under-90 minute tale about the friendship forged between a refugee and a dog—but with its consistent lack of narrative intrigue, character development, and environmental detail the film all but forced my hand. Post-“mumblecore” (shudder), little room exists in theatrical distribution for the micro-indie, and sub-par efforts like A Stray fail to help the cause.
Barkhad Abdirahamn plays Adan, a young Somalian who has been kicked out of the family apartment for stealing his mother’s jewelry. A Stray opens with Adan leaving another apartment in the same building after he gets in a fight with the young men with whom he was staying. He then finds shelter in a mosque, where he repents of his delinquent ways and befriends a man who gives him a restaurant delivery job. On a delivery Adan runs over a dog (Ayla)—the food is spoiled, the job is rescinded, but Adan rescues and adopts the black and white mutt (eventually christened Laila) and tows it around Minneapolis as he attempts to procure work, reunite with his family, and discover safe places to sleep each night.
The main problem with A Stray is that Syeed never immerses the viewer in any one interaction, location, or situation long enough to make Adan or even Laila relatable characters. During his wanderings Adan encounters his ex-girlfriend, a former soccer coach, Islamic slam poets, and a group of homeless Native Americans, but all of these people are given less than a few minutes of screen time, and so Adan’s exile from his community and estrangement within a still-foreign land never register. One could attribute these fleeting glimpses to Syeed’s desire to capture the itinerant existence of a refugee living on the fringes of society, but even during down-moments he rushes the film’s obligatory human-canine bonding (as well as fake-out separation) scenes. Syeed also resorts to telegramming background information about Muslim refugees through randomly inserted television newscasts—a telltale lazy narrative device.
Final hope for A Stray rests in a subplot concerning Adan’s collaboration with a federal agent (Christina Baldwin) monitoring various young Somalians for possible extremist connections and terrorist activities. Yet here the film makes no sense. Why does the government reward Adan with his own apartment after he provides them no usable information? Especially after he’s repeatedly chided by the agent for this as well as for failing to stay in contact? Why does the agent need Adan to explain to her the meaning of a tapped phone call (I’ve read about a dearth of FBI and CIA translators, but come on), and why does she immediately take his word for it when he dismisses the call as “nothing”? Why does Adan suddenly run from his new apartment and cut off ties with the agent, especially when we see no new reason for him to do so? Is it guilt over aiding in the invasive surveillance of his friends and community? Or is it fear of being set up himself? Such questions arise not because of complex ambiguities in the character’s motivations but instead because of narrative confusion and murkiness.
A Stray serves as a reminder that bad films come in all shapes and sizes. Moviegoers often conflate poor narrative construction and character development with pandering, overstuffed, special effects-dependent studio “product,” but such flaws are very much on display in Syeed’s feature, the kind of little-engine-that-could that viewers starving for the unusual and authentic are more than ready to root for. Too bad, then, that A Stray relies on its pedigree to attract viewers while refusing to perform the hard work of engaging them.