Film Review – The Strays
We all want a better life, but what lengths should we go to obtain it? Is wealth and privilege worth suppressing our very souls? That is at the heart of writer/director Nathaniel Martello-White’s feature length debut, The Strays (2023). He weaves a tale that has beats of the horror and thriller genres, but also acts as a piercing examination of race and cultural identity. What does it mean to truly come to terms with who we are as individuals? How does one maintain their background while adapting to different environments, communities, and social classes?
That is the dilemma that faces Cheryl (Ashley Madekwe). Tired of living a meager life in the housing projects of London, Cheryl makes the drastic decision to abandon her family without notice. We find her years later living in an upper middle-class suburb, working as a deputy headmistress of a prestigious private school. Cheryl’s desperation to escape her previous circumstances are put on display – she wears a wig to cover her natural hair, marries a white man, changes her accent, and goes so far as to change her name to “Neve.” Cheryl/Neve has taken the ideas of “code switching” and “passing” to an extreme, erasing who she was in hopes of being accepted by others.
Of course, being black in a predominantly white neighborhood will always make Neve an outsider. Martello-White’s writing and direction structures Neve’s guilt as small bits that build upon one another. Conversations where Neve’s white friends describe her as “practically” one of them rubs her the wrong way. The wig she uses causes her scalp to itch. She begins having nightmares and visions, representing her inner turmoil. Her own mixed children Sebastian (Samuel Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida) wish to explore their cultural heritage. When Mary comes home with her hair braided, Neve’s reaction is less than warm. Try as she might, Neve cannot deny who she is. The more she fights it, the more it pushes back.
The cinematography (Adam Scarth), editing (Mark Towns), and music (Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch) create a mounting dread. Nothing feels comforting. Neve’s home, with its pristine furniture and earthy colors, feels cold and stale. The rooms and hallways of her school are lifeless. Nothing about the façade Neve has created is natural or authentic. Each morning, she rehearses conversations in hopes of sounding like everybody else. Most egregiously, she has become more aware of any black people in her vicinity. In her effort to blend in, Neve has adopted racist tendencies toward anyone that looks or sounds different. Black people exist in her periphery like an imposing danger – sometimes the camera will dip into her perspective and view them as otherworldly beings. Neve has become so lost that she is threatened by her own origins.
But the sins of her past eventually come for her, in the form of Marvin (Jorden Myrie) and Abigail (Bukky Bakray). Marvin and Abigail are two black youngsters that have seemingly materialized out of thin air. Neve recoils at their presence, in fear that they may somehow “expose” her to friends and coworkers. The narrative takes a big risk about halfway through, folding in on itself to recount events from Marvin and Abigail’s side. Martello-White plays with time during this section, as scenes and moments are recontextualized from a different point of view. Marvin and Abigail’s relationship, and the way they upend Neve’s finely tuned existence is obvious from the start, but how those threads play out is endlessly fascinating.
The themes of race will undoubtably draw comparisons to the work of Jordan Peele, and rightly so. Martello-White’s narrative is smart and insightful, examining a specific aspect of British society. But he takes things further than that. The third act takes a drastic turn, leaning into the chaos and violence as an extreme punctuation. There is a lot of anger and resentment on display – all the pent-up emotions come spilling out in a sequence that is intense, messy, and sad. Martello-White doesn’t quite maintain the white-knuckle tension all the way to the closing moments. The scene runs a little too long to keep such a highwire act, but ultimately still works. We can understand everything leading up to it. We may not agree with the decisions being made, but we can trace how characters came to this position, their motivations, and the consequences of their mistakes.
It would be easy to label Cheryl/Neve as an “anti-hero” or even a “villain.” She makes some truly awful choices, damaging herself and just about everyone close to her. But the writing, direction, and Ashley Madekwe’s performance paint the character with dimension. Cheryl compromises who she is because of the very society she lives in. We sense that she has been bombarded with racist messaging, convincing her that a certain way of life is the only means to find happiness. She turns herself into Neve to escape the pressures that come with being a woman and a person of color. The film doesn’t ask us to condone her, but to understand. If anything, I came away feeling pity for Cheryl/Neve. She must have gone through a lot of pain and mental anguish to take such unforgivable actions. That’s a sign of excellent character development – when a person who makes bad decisions is still interesting enough for us to invest in their journey.
The Strays end on an ambiguous note. Some viewers may find this frustrating, as things just sort of stop in mid-stream with no clear resolution. But this feels more honest than any other option. When it comes to race relations, code switching, and identity, there are no easy answers. Just like real life, things are not simply cut and dry. If there were easy solutions to these difficult topics, there wouldn’t be a need to cover them. But tough questions need to be asked, and difficult conversations must take place. Nathaniel Martello-White has announced himself with a very strong debut. If this is his starting point, I can only imagine what heights he’ll take us next.