The new thriller Stray Dolls is absolutely a film for 2020. Snippets of Trump's "America first" speech as juxtaposed with the grim reality of undocumented Indian immigrant Riz (Geetanjali Thapa). The film's pulse on the current times, its empathy for its characters and the wonderful nighttime cinematograph distract from a plot that is largely predictable and lacks a clear point. Stray Dolls may not offer up new thrills but it is often taut and features two fully realized characters.
Riz arrives in upstate New York hoping to make a life for herself. She quickly meets an Eastern European motelier, Una. Una is played by Cynthia Nixon who is best known for Sex and the City and a recent run for New York governor. Her presence in the film almost derails the film, drawing too much attention to her ability to don an accent. Luckily she isn't in the film much.
Riz begins a housekeeping job at the motel. Her roommate Dallas (Olivia DeJonge) holds her at knife-point and takes her stuff. This is the first sign that a better life is not in the cards for Riz. Dallas forces Riz to steal from one of the motel's guests. She does without a trace of hesitation, showing that Riz is no saint. What she stills is a large amount of drugs, which soon leads to a murder and downward spiral of events.
The movie shifts from standard thriller fair to intimate scenes between Riz and Dallas. The intimate scenes show how thin the connection is between these two women and yet it is enough because it is specific. DeJonge paints Dallas as a fierce but vulnerable drug-addict who can't escape the life she continually returns to. Thapa is fantastic as Riz, painting a complex character that first may read as naive but soon shows a wiser and more ruthless woman. She is willing to commit acts of violence and yet still remains wide-eyed in her desire to have a better life.
Stray Dolls lets you know early on that this is a tale of desperation and crime. What gives it a unique pulse is its treatment of these two women. The film lets them be complicated in ways something like Thelma and Louise did years ago. Riz and Dallas are never judged or looked down upon for doing whatever they have to do to try and escape their dead-end. It is too bad the film's thriller elements weren't fresher as this could have been a true original.