Keen attention to detail makes a social thriller stand out
British actress Ashley Madekwe takes up the screen as Neve, formerly Cheyrl, as the lead in The Strays, a social horror film. The Janus-faced mother of four sure does know how to live for herself.
It is only a matter of time before the past catches up with the egocentric deputy headmistress of a private school turning her picture-perfect life upside down.
The story is set in a town in England where Neve plays the mother and Justin Salinger appears as Ian, the father. Maria Almeida and Samuel Small play Mary and Sebastian, completing the nuclear family.
When two black strangers show up in town and start appearing in Neve’s daily life, she begins feeling odd. The two teens, who initially identify themselves as Abigail and Marvin and take up jobs in the vicinity, are played by Bukky Bakray and Jorden Myrie.
Neve becomes suspicious of the duo. Her distress is evident. Fear and paranoia take over as she spirals out of control at her workplace trying to get Marvin, who works as a janitor there, fired. Another time, her carefully curated genteel persona falls apart at a fundraiser when she snaps at a girl invited to the event by her daughter.
The Netflix original instantly draws the audience in with cinematography that captures the essence of the moment and is attuned to the smallest of details such as muted shouting.
The music direction is also worth complimenting because it is oft-times in perfect harmony with the theme. Morning Mood by Edvard Grieg, which in many ways is an ode to time, its passage and stillness, plays in the background as the lead relives her past in the present.
Tiny details are what give the movie an edge over others with similar concepts. The camera angles and shot types, mostly a combination of wide and close-up shots, evoke a sense of proximity to the characters.
A composition of realistic sound effects such as the clear sounds of running tap water and closing car doors are layered over an eerie silence. This has the overall effect of making the viewers feel invested, almost as if they are living and breathing in the movie.
Neve, the compassionate and protective mother of two, is the ideal wife and woman by most standards in the society. She has an aristocratic air about her and routinely cuts ribbons at fundraisers. Cheryl, also a mother of two, had abandoned her children to escape her abusive husband.
The Strays is a hauntingly beautiful depiction of how unatoned sins find a way to weave back into one’s life. From Cheyrl’s life to Neve’s life, we see a woman blame dire circumstances for her decisions but when given a chance to make amends when she is flourishing in life, she decides to repeat what transpired in her past and again sever relationships. The ending leaves the audience room to arrive at their own conclusions.
“Lovely morning, isn’t it?” Neve rehearses in the mirror. Serums, vitamins and wigs line up her vanity. She is a black woman by birth but she has the passing privilege. So she deludes herself into believing that she has successfully integrated into the elite of society by appearing as a fair-skinned, white-washed, accent-faking, sophisticated woman who spares no opportunity to emphasise that she has nothing to do with the black people or their culture. At the root of her manicured mannerisms and behaviours is brutal denial; she does not want to be identified with her race.
When the tide turns, trauma, grief and pain from the past she has worked so hard to suppress show up at her door. She chooses to pass through this too and fake her way through the trials and tribulations that follow; a testimony to her shallow and self-centred nature. She makes this choice when the fate of five people depends on her.
“We’re dealt the cards we’re dealt. You’ve just gotta make the most of things.”
The issue of racial discrimination and its implications should not be reduced to black people up against white people. When people, already on the margins, are denied equal opportunities or when the glass ceiling effect plays itself out, it is to the detriment of the self-perception and self-image of these individuals too. Couple that with the social pressure they face to pass as white and the so-called ‘privileges’ that they unlock by doing so and it becomes even more real.
We see such manifestations laid out in the movie by Neve as she tries her best to maintain fair skin, adopt white girl hairstyles, going so far as to condemn her daughter when she shows up with braids in her hair.
“What happened to your accent? Do you hate being Black?”
“No, no. I’m a proud Black woman.”
The gist of the movie is an amalgamation of racial discrimination and familial issues arising from the abandonment of children by a mother. It also highlights domestic violence and marital rape which are underreported due to social stigmas.
Neve, as a young mother, prioritises her safety over that of her children. We see racial discrimination not only hampering an individual’s mental health but also affecting their family and community.
The movie portrays the internal struggle of Neve to accept herself and Cheryl as one. The result is an utter failure. Her two versions – the black woman up against adversity and the elite white-passing woman who lives a privileged life - are at irreconcilably war with each other.
This goes on to show that it is better for an individual to be content with their true identity rather than meticulously craft alternate lives to hide low self-esteem. It movie also shows that micro-aggressions and systemic discrimination can make it harder for people to embrace their true selves.
The writer is an undergraduate student of psychology at FC College