The Strays focuses so much time on the weirdness of racial divides and cultural legacy that it hardly leaves a dent.
Published on March 8, 2023
Rating 2 /5
Since the new wave of social horror evoked by Jordan Peele, there’s undoubtedly been a thirst for more of these types of films. The Strays attempts to find more horror within a suburban setting and tries to find more of the anxiety brought on by “not being black enough” amid the cultural trend of white flight. While something is compelling and worth exploring in these cultural elements, this film, unfortunately, phones in the commentary with surface-level readings and standard horror elements.
The film centers around Cheryl (Ashley Madekwe), a mother of two children and a white husband living in a privileged England suburb. Her life seems ideal until she gets a mysterious phone call. Money is discussed, as well as discrimination. It’s a secret she’s been keeping from her family, hoping nobody will discover what she’s been covering up and that it will remain buried in this prim and proper community. She’s got enough to deal with in terms of her trouble-making son, hair-experimenting daughter, and awkwardly open husband.
Before the big reveal, there are a lot of cerebral fears present within Cheryl. The racial awkwardness becomes apparent with the many off-putting conversations about racial alliances and tip-toeing around black culture. For example, Cheryl notices her daughter's adoption of a hairstyle more present in black girls of the city than in the suburbs. While the white neighbors trip over their words to remark on the style, Cheryl has unease. This same paranoia courses through how she raises her son as well, growing unreasonably angry when noticing her son talking to another black teenager.
It’s later revealed that Cheryl’s fears are one part internalized racial perceptions and one part a darker past of trying to cut ties. Into her life comes the duo of Carl and Dione, visitors to the town who take on jobs to get closer to Cheryl. They’re on a revenge mission and seeking out what they feel owed. Believing this is all about money, Cheryl tries to buy them off with a hefty check. Unfortunately, that’s not all they want. They want the life they felt denied by Cheryl skipping out on them, desiring the decadent family life that Cheryl now lavishes upon her new family. All of this boils over into a home invasion scene that is decently staged but reduces the terror to one of conflicting revenge, where Cheryl all but shuts down at the life she was unable to control.
This type of social horror has all the right ingredients, but they never make a complete meal. It always feels like the film is one scene away from making all the problems of privileged suburbia and racial anxiety explode into something bigger. That’s why it’s all the more disheartening when it ends up as mere platitudes of a first-draft screenplay, feeling more like a student film than it should. Rather than explore this material further, the film keeps spinning its wheels until eventually arriving at an ambiguous ending, unsure of where to go next.
The Strays focuses so much time on the weirdness of racial divides and cultural legacy that it hardly leaves a dent. Instead of finding something more to do with these important topics, this picture mostly shrugs as it stirs together all the culturally relevant aspects, presented more as a “look how weird this all is” type of movie. On a filmmaking level, the picture has a solid build and the cast does their best with the material provided. On a thematic level, however, this film feels far too adrift to be something more compelling.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.