Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) isn’t naïve. She may be fresh off the boat, but it’s not as if she’s never been on dry land before. She knew — at least to a certain extent — what life might have in store for her when she left her family behind and illegally emigrated from India to upstate New York. She knew that sneaking into America meant starting on the ground floor, and she knew that some of the unsavory people she met down there might try to pull her back into the same life of petty crime she fled home in order to escape.
So when Riz washes up at the Tides Plaza Motel in the beginning of Sonejuhi Sinha’s confident and arresting debut feature “Stray Dolls,” the furtive teenager arrives with her guard up and her chin high, ready for the challenges that come with an honest living. Less than 10 minutes later, she’s forced to break into a stranger’s room and steal a brick of cocaine. Good or bad, foreign or domestic, it’s hard to follow the law in a country where your very existence is considered illegal, and a handshake with the devil can be required to keep any sliver of hope alive. Riz isn’t naïve, but she may not be cynical enough to control her own destiny.
Sticking a knife into the hard underbelly of the American Dream, “Stray Dolls” is a taut and stylish thriller that manages to draw fresh blood from some very familiar territory. Sinha may not pioneer any new ground with Riz’s story, but the specificity with which she tells it can render the film remarkably urgent. “Stray Dolls” broaches the Trump era with such a light touch that Sinha might have considered keeping the President out of it altogether, but Riz’s misfortunes are the direct result of a society that forces its most desperate people against each other.
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Everyone in this movie is desperate to some degree, but no one — not even Riz — is more conflicted about their choices than Una, the Eastern European manager of the Low Tides Motel. Played by a ruthless but low-key heartbreaking Cynthia Nixon, who delivers the kind of supporting performance that might inspire even her most ardent political supporters to appreciate that she won’t be cooped up in Albany for the next four years, Una has essentially turned the motel into a giant moral compromise.
On the one hand, she offers safe-ish work to people who have nowhere else to go. Una gives Riz a room in exchange for her services as a maid, and calms the wary young immigrant by telling her about the motel’s weekly karaoke night. “You work hard, you make it here,” she says. And then, in a tone that’s difficult to parse: “Do you believe that?”
You sense that Una wants to, or wishes that she still could. And that sense doesn’t waver in the following scene, when she takes Riz’s Indian passport and shreds it to pieces, forcing the girl into an open future of indentured servitude. But even the cheapest motels cost real money to run, and Una has already resigned herself to doing some very bad things in order to buy a brighter tomorrow for her scum-bum of a son (Robert Aramayo, who played young Eddard Stark on “Game of Thrones”). “I don’t work this hard to watch you waste yourself!” she snaps at him, folding all sorts of sins into her labor.
Riz’s roommate is a bit less patient about making things happen. A grungy blonde wild child who was born scrambling and alone, Dallas (Olivia Dejonge, channeling Juno Temple) is a natural opportunist who sees Riz as a perfect foil. Within seconds of meeting, she browbeats the immigrant back into the same life of crime that Riz is trying to leave behind. It’s a big reach for a small movie — a basic plot beat that might not feel natural in a raw slice-of-life story where all of the actors are allowed to keep their acne — but “Stray Dolls” is happy to walk the line between social-realism and seedy crime fare; the film, like its characters, is wedged between the gutter and the stars.
At times, it feels like a Dardenne brothers movie that dreams of becoming “Spring Breakers,” and Sinha’s direction makes it easy to appreciate how Riz might get caught up in the action. Between the purgatorial gray environs and the static images of Riz calling her parents to lie about how well America is treating her, it’s as if Sinha is encouraging her audience to ask for some excitement, and to root for Riz when she immediately gets involved in Dallas’ drug scheme.
It goes a long way that the two girls look after each other. No one else does that for either of them. They might even be in love. A narrow ray of hope can be enough to make even the most righteous people forget themselves, and — between a little ecstasy, some cool tungsten lighting, and a seductive soundtrack — it’s strange how fast it starts to feel like Riz might be on the right track. Thanks to the steely resolve of Thapa’s absorbing performance, you might even continue to feel that way after the bodies start piling up around her.
If “Stray Dolls” strains belief as it goes along, that’s only because the plot starts to get in the way. Riz is mostly a reflection of her circumstances, but the story pulls away from Una and Dallas even as they grow deeper with each scene. Sinha has a certain ending in mind, and in order to get there she has to introduce a gun-toting gangster out of central casting; a genuine bad guy in a film that’s otherwise full of sinners doing the best they can.
The more aggressively the story’s leads try to steal a better life for themselves, the more “Stray Dolls” unmoors itself from the matter of the lives they lead now. Una claims to have a big heart, but we never get to see just how much it bleeds for other people; there’s real tragedy in the way she baits her son and employees with the empty promise that they might take over the motel one day, but that dream recedes into the distance as Riz and Dallas speed towards a dead end of their own making. At least they do it together. For better or worse, the lost souls at the Tides Plaza Motel see each other as their only hope. The Land of Opportunity has nothing else to offer them.
“Stray Dolls” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.