'Stray Dolls': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Shane Sigler
Not exactly the American Dream.

Sonejuhi Sinha’s feature debut follows two young women caught in a downward spiral of violence and crime.

Writer-director Sonejuhi Sinha delves into the seedier side of working-class desperation in Stray Dolls, an emotionally driven crime drama following two disenfranchised young women determined to seize control of their lives on their own terms. Alternately incisive and uneven, Sinha’s feature looks poised for a robust festival run and could even score a streaming slot on one of the more adventurous, edgier platforms.

Soon after paying off traffickers and fleeing India before completely succumbing to a life of low-level street crime, Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) somehow ends up in Poughkeepsie, New York. Sympathetic manager Una (Cynthia Nixon) gives her a housekeeping job at the Tides Plaza Motel in exchange for a shabby room and a meager salary. She’ll have to share the room, and the bed, with trash-talking blonde Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), who’s none too happy about the arrangement, either. She makes her displeasure clear by ransacking Riz’s luggage and confiscating her cash and valuables, promising to give them back only if Riz will help her out by stealing from motel guests.

Desperate to reclaim her few possessions, Riz picks the lock on drug dealer Sal’s (Samrat Chakrabarti) luggage while cleaning his room, discovering a thick brick of coke that she turns over to Dallas in exchange for her belongings. Moving up the food chain, Dallas delivers the drugs to Una’s son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo), her habitual hookup and an avid prescription-pill addict. He claims he can sell the coke to a local dealer for $800, a sum that impresses Dallas, who’s determined to collect the money and leave town, if she can only get off the pills, booze and coke long enough to get her head straight.

Sinha’s selective use of lighting to establish mood becomes evident early on, shooting primarily at night and in low-light settings illuminated by splashes of halogen and neon. In part, this technique emphasizes the women’s grim situation, but it’s also intended to show that they’re literally in the dark, unable to ascertain the actual scope or severity of their predicament.

Indeed, whenever a large stash of drugs goes missing, it’s usually not long before somebody comes looking for it. Although it takes Sal a surprising amount of time to realize he’s been ripped off, once he breaks into Dallas and Riz’s hotel room to retrieve his goods, he finds a whole lot more trouble than he came looking for. In short order, the two women have a much more complicated situation on their hands than they expected from a little bit of thieving, but very little to show for it.  

Their justifiably violent response to this incident, as well as a series of increasingly perilous situations, eventually reveals an inconsistency of tone that can be difficult to reconcile. As depicted, their lack of familiarity with the ground rules of drug dealing implies a significant degree of inexperience, but the ferociousness of their reactions suggests a much more ingrained criminality than the plot reveals.

Sinha and co-writer Charlotte Rabate remain deliberately short on exposition, and while the lack of character detail may add to the sense of inevitability as the women hurtle toward certain calamity, their motivations get a bit muddled along the way. Sinha’s talents are best revealed by her work with this sometimes contrary cast, as she brings them into frequent and occasionally revealing conflict. As Riz, Thapa’s stoic performance withholds more than it reveals, even as she gradually opens up to Dallas. Surprisingly, she’s at her most animated when she’s most confined, crammed into a public phone booth calling her mom back home and joyfully fibbing about her wonderful new life in America.

DeJonge (M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) strikes a combustible balance between needy runaway and avenging spirit, apparently exorcising some monumental personal issues with messy determination. Nixon plays a seductively subversive role as Una, a seemingly caring boss and mother who’s really just looking out for her own interests with calculated venality. 

Production company: Om Films
Cast: Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia DeJonge, Cynthia Nixon, Robert Aramayo, Samrat Chakrabarti
Director: Sonejuhi Sinha
Screenwriters: Sonejuhi Sinha, Charlotte Rabate
Producers: Charlotte Rabate, Edward Parks, Sonejuhi Sinha
Executive producers: Niraj Bhatia, Dan Burks, Stephanie Apt, Guillaume Rabate, Chris Jonns
Director of photography: Shane Sigler
Production designer: Latisha Duarte
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Editor: J.D. Smyth
Music: Gingger Shankar
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Sales: UTA

97 minutes