In Stray, an orphaned young woman struggles to discover the reasons behind her mother’s death, aided by an indefatigable detective with child-care issues of her own. The plot is also tinged with a bit of the supernatural, which typically would raise this movie a few cuts above your standard police procedural. Instead, the film left me deeply unsatisfied.
In an early scene, we see the mother, Kyoko (Saki Miata, “M.A.R.R.A.”), leave her apartment (shared with her daughter and her own mother) in the middle of the night, heading to an abandoned warehouse. Later that evening, she is discovered dead in the warehouse by a night watchman. Not just dead, though — petrified. Detective Stella Murphy (Christine Woods, “Poor Greg Drowning”), just returning to work after a personal leave of absence, is called in to the case and visits the late Kyoko’s mother and child in the apartment. The older woman is reticent about her daughter’s death and offers very little information to the detective; the younger one, Nori (Karen Fukuhara, “Suicide Squad”), is more inquisitive but is ultimately silenced by her well-meaning grandmother. Nori, who has apparently been kept in the apartment by her mother and grandmother without proper schooling or any other outside life, later summons all of her courage and walks downtown to visit Murphy at the police station in an attempt to see her mother’s body.
Even at this point, we in the audience have reason to believe there’s a lot more to this death than meets the eye, and the body-viewing scene enforces this belief. Something supernatural has happened to Kyoko, and it appears that the grandmother knows a heck of a lot more than she’s letting on. In addition to this new, weird case, Murphy has to deal with her new supervisor, her ex-husband Jake (Ross Partridge, “Secret in Their Eyes”), a character straight out of the aforementioned standard police procedural, and plus there’s this mysterious black-leather-clad motorcycle rider following Murphy and Nori all over the place. Oh, did I mention that Nori, orphan (although 18 years old) that she is, is now staying with Murphy? The implication is that this is somehow irregular and frowned upon, but it’s not as if Nori was going to go into the local Child Services system. At any rate, Nori and Murphy both want to know more about Kyoko’s demise, so the former assists the latter — and, certainly, helps her grow as a person in the process.
Now, for the first half or so of Stray, there are these hints of supernatural activity, hints that tantalize the viewer into wanting to know more, to dive deeper into what seems to be a mysterious new world. Endless opportunity for storytelling, you would think. There must be some kind of mystical backstory associated with Nori’s family. What could it be? Herein lies the biggest problem with the movie — this aspect is left largely unexplored. So for that first half, we have a crime story that contains touches of science-fiction and fantasy, but then those touches lead to a whole lot of nothing in the second half of the movie, which instead focuses on finding out the identity of the Man in Black and his connection to Nori’s family. The answer is too straightforward, too normal for the movie. We keep expecting something wondrous, something magical, and we just get more police work. It’s not just disappointing, it’s a real letdown.
So the plot is pretty uneven, and unfortunately so is the dialog. At times I felt bad for the actors, who are given some pretty dopey lines to speak (but none so memorable that I can recite them now). Some of them even made me laugh, and trust me when I say that this is not a comedic movie. But I can’t pin all of the blame on the screenwriters (J.D. Dillard and Alex Theurer), trite and predictable as the story is. The acting is just as uneven. I mean, there are scenes, up-close-and-personal confrontations between characters that are played very well by the participants, and then there are other scenes in which it felt like the actor was just trying to get through the ordeal so they could all go to lunch. That said, the movie’s strength is its female characters and the women behind them, and it’s their performances that save the whole she-band from sliding into an oblivion of obscurity.
Bottom line, unless seeing a major plot angle get presented but not explored is of interest to you, Stray is an interesting movie, but one that teases without pleasing.