Nathaniel Martello-White’s debut film “The Strays” released on Netflix on Feb. 22. The newly released film draws obvious inspiration from Jordan Peel’s 2017 film “Get Out” — a thriller that places the main character in an isolated suburb with virtually no other Black residents and reveals an insidious enterprise within white suburbia. Though Martello-White’s film is an ode to Peel’s, there is a stark lack of substantial meaning behind “The Strays” in comparison to “Get Out.”
The film struggles to identify the core problem it wants to address. Different themes are insinuated but aren’t developed clearly enough throughout the 100-minute run-time. “The Strays” alludes to serious issues that affect Black communities such as coping with generational trauma, double consciousness and internalized racism. However, it puts the discussion of these concepts on the back-burner in favor of fulfilling genre cliches like slow-pacing camera shots set to creepy violin strings. Various reviews on the film corroborate how the story feels incomplete, and its Rotten Tomatoes score seems to echo public opinion at a dismal 27% audience score.
The film follows Neve (Ashley Madekwe), previously known as Cheryl, a light-skinned Black woman living in an upper-class suburb with her biracial family. With the exception of Neve and her two children, Sebastian (Samuel Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida), there are no other Black residents in the suburb. Neve’s idealistic life is disrupted when she begins to notice two Black strangers lingering around the neighborhood, seeming uncannily familiar with her and her family. As tensions escalate, Neve cannot endure the secrets of her past any longer and the picturesque life she’s curated for herself comes crashing down.
“The Strays” is intent on defining itself as a horror-thriller, but its heavy thematic elements make it hard to buy into the suspenseful tone it tries to induce. For example, halfway through the film Sebastian and Mary start to bond with the new Black individuals in their town — Marvin (Jorden Myrie) and Abigail (Bukky Bakray). Marvin and Abigail are introduced as obvious antagonists through Neve’s nervous reaction to their presence. However, the film goes out of its way to humanize them through their interactions with Sebastian and Mary, creating a dissonance between the characters’ role in the plot and the audience’s interpretation of their disposition. As we learn their backstory, it’s hard to see Marvin and Abigail as hardcore villains, and the latter half of the thriller loses the tension that it tried so hard to build as a result.
Despite the confusing misdirection of the film’s themes, “The Strays” stays true to the horror-thriller genre. The cinematography is arguably the strongest aspect of the film: the slow, creeping angles and the cast’s believable performance covers up most of the plot’s incompleteness. Though some shots — such as the repetitive shot of looking back into the mirror to see a stranger disappear — were rudimentary, most of the film kept its steady pacing through interesting camera work and aesthetic color-grading.
The film also had great moments that offered introspection on Neve’s struggle with her Black identity. Martello-White lingers on these instances — Neve judging Mary for embracing cultural beauty styles like edge styling and braids, Neve only owning straight wigs and Neve refusing to let her husband touch her wig during intercourse. These understated scenes give the audience subtle insight into the depth of Neve’s repression and denial of her Blackness. Madekwe’s nuanced performance evokes sympathy for Neve who is unpleasant because of her worldview but nevertheless a very poignant character.
The casting was immaculate; every actor brought a sense of authenticity to each role, making their performances shine by doing their best to portray the complexities of the characters.
Overall, “The Strays” was an acceptable horror-thriller, but a lacking social thriller. Because of the film’s visuals and effective pacing, the general viewing experience wasn’t too bad, but the plot’s reliance on genre cliches made it too predictable. The film should’ve explored Neve’s backstory more in-depth or make it harder to sympathize with the proposed villains.
Despite these positive aspects of the film, “The Strays” doesn’t deliver a satisfying horror-thriller experience. The lack of thematic coherence underscores the entire movie and removes the viewer’s emotional investment in Neve’s story, as well as weakening the potential for stronger social commentary.
For horror-thriller fans looking for their next “Get Out” experience, “The Strays” won’t completely match expectations. However, the film is still an entertaining watch for quick thrills and quirky British accents.
Lauren Koh is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the winter 2023 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.