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‘The Strays’ review: Antagonist choice causes this British thriller to abandon it’s more intriguing commentary about racial identity

Writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White speaks to the crisis of racial plights, but The Strays forgets who the bad person is.


When The Strays begins, it focuses on an apartment building while Cheryl (Ashley Madekwe) is hysterically venting to her sister on the phone. She’s had it – if the slow pan of a pile of credit card bills on her living room table didn’t drive the point home. Cheryl has won Salesperson of the Year three times in a row and still can’t get a leg up. There are also indications that her husband may be abusive. In an exasperated declaration, Cheryl says, “she wants more. Is it wrong to want more?” It’s a question many Black families (especially Black mothers) have asked as they are forced to navigate many socioeconomic factors that often make them stuck. Writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White’s film dives into classism, racial identity, privilege, and self-worth.

The first half opts to be the pace of a physiological thriller. Cheryl herself is a light-skinned Black woman that can go for white passing. Thus, she abruptly leaves in the beginning, but we find her years later in one of The Strays’ four chapters. She is now known as Neve, living in a wealthy neighborhood with her caucasian husband Ian (Justin Salinger) and two bi-racial children, Mary (Maria Almeida) and Sebastian (Samuel Small). Neve has developed a fake accent, wears wigs to conceal her natural hair, and is dying to throw a grand gala to prove her new identity is indeed valid.


What’s even more troubling is that “Neve” goes entirely out of her way to denounce and deny anything from her past (including her own Blackness). When Mary has corn rolls in her hair, Neve recoils in anger. As a headmaster at Sebastian and Mary's private school, she admonishes Sebastian for conversing with a dark skinner janitor. Neve/Cheryl’s children say they are Black at the dinner table, and Neve doesn’t acknowledge it. It’s cognitive dissonance to the extreme. However, Neve/Cheryl has been seeing a Black man and woman just watching her at different points in an eerie, surreal way.

Martello-White is very direct in his storytelling, so the audience can deduce who these two people are. At that point, the perspective shifts to Marvin (Jorden Myrie) and Abigail (Bukky Bakray), so you can sympathize with their viewpoints. However, at first (and seemingly at the film’s conclusion), The Strays fit them as the antagonists. When you discover their relation to Neve/Cheryl, you understand their anger and hurt. Myrie and Bakray both effectively take turns showing the vast array of emotions that comes with a sense of abandonment. They, too, are searching for identity, even if Neve/Cheryl chooses to run away from hers.

However, as The Strays asks all the right questions, it elects to abandon to show us its findings for an explosive, Funny Games-type third act. At a point, Neve/Cheryl looks to her new family and speaks about how fathers leave in the same manner she did all the time. It’s a great jumping-off point to talk about those gender roles. Also, why would somebody with her complexion try to create an entirely fake life? That’s another thorny question The Strays raises but doesn’t necessarily conclude on. Instead, the film concerns itself with (indirectly) pointing to a bad guy when it’s merely out of dire circumstances out of their control.

Neve/Cheryl’s final choice may be abrupt. It may even feel silly how sudden it is, but it’s completely on point from what type of person she is. You can’t run from who you are and certainly shouldn’t run your background – no matter what society imparts on you. The Strays puts these revelations to the table, but sacrifices the wrong characters' mortal pretenses at the expense of another.