'A Stray': Film Review

Yoni Brook
A surprisingly optimistic but not ingratiating slice-of-life in an underexposed immigrant community.
10/21/2016

Barkhad Abdirahman ('Captain Phillips') plays a Somali immigrant who wanders the streets of Minneapolis trying to rid himself of a canine sidekick.

Exploring the experience of Somali immigrants in America with a mix of social realism and whimsy, Musa Syeed's winning A Stray relies on a cinematic device at least as old as Chaplin. Pairing a temporarily homeless young man with a scruffy mutt in a similar plight, Syeed allows himself only as much sentimentality as is required to keep this from looking to prospective audiences like a feel-bad tale of outsiders in an oppressive world. Modest but pleasing, the picture will likely fare better on video, relying on slow-build word of mouth, than in its limited theatrical release.

Barkhad Abdirahman, one of the hijackers in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips, here plays Adan, one of the thousands of Somalis who resettled in the Minneapolis area around the time of their country's civil war. Unemployed and estranged from his mother, he's sharing a cramped apartment with a half-dozen friends when domestic tensions erupt and leave him homeless.

He winds up taking shelter in a local mosque and is faced with a temptation straight from Les Miserables; when he decides not to steal money from the donation box, he and an imam share a prayer — not just for forgiveness, but that God will give Adan a friend to help him on his path to a righteous life.

Neither of them feels the need to specify this friend should be human, and both Allah and a century's worth of moviemakers know that a cute dog can open doors for the downtrodden where a human sidekick might not. They can also, in this case, close them: When Adan accidentally hits a stray with a new employer's car and brings him back to work, the boss (Faysal Ahmed, another of the Captain Phillips crew) is furious, responding that he prays in this place and a dog makes it unclean. Other Muslims will react similarly over the course of the next few days, and Adan generally sees the pooch as an albatross.

He wanders all over town trying to get rid of the thing — visiting an old girlfriend in her college dorm, for instance, only to feel the sting of her rejection anew. (How can she look down on his imperfect English, he asks the mutt, when he speaks four languages to her one?) Somewhere along the way he decides to call the black-spotted furball Laila (the canine actor's name is Ayla), and each time he thinks he has found a safe home for her, or even just a guilt-free place to ditch her, she winds up back in the duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

Syeed never resorts to cutesy reaction shots to anthropomorphize the dog, never lingers long enough to make a viewer feel manipulated by its obvious cuteness. And at the other end of the spectrum, he doesn't dwell on the misfortune of his human protagonist. The film matter-of-factly observes that the man is always looking for a place he can shut his eyes for a few minutes, is often hungry and doesn't seem to know where to turn. But the tone is never one of despair.

More than once, Adan passes through rooms where TVs play footage showing a new generation of refugees, Syrians who have it much worse than he does. But even in a few scenes where he deals with a federal agent who promises him housing in return for information about his fellow immigrants, A Stray has no obvious political or moral agenda. It lets Adan do the talking, in atmospheric lap-dissolve interludes where a voiceover turns out to represent his silent prayers to a deity he worries is ignoring him. "Know that I am on a path," he eventually assures the listener he can't see or feel, "the best that I can find."

Distributor: IFP Screen Forward
Production company: Vilcek Foundation
Cast: Barkhad Abdirahman, Ayla, Faysal Ahmed, Fathia Absie, Hassan Ali Mohamud, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour
Director-screenwriter: Musa Syeed
Producer: Jamila Wignot
Director of photography: Yoni Brook
Editor: Kamau Bilal
Composers: Rayzak Hassan, Brandon Scott

In English and Somali

Not rated, 81 minutes

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