REVIEW: ‘Stray’ is an Unforgettable Gem

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Stray

What an impressive feature film debut for the Hong Kong-born and raised Elizabeth Lo, who captures a brief yet effective look at the lives of three stray dogs scouring the streets of Istanbul. It’s a quiet film but infinitely expressive thanks to Elizabeth Lo’s careful direction and eye for detail. It’s the canine version of Nomadland, and I’m pleased to report I was a lot more invested in the lives of our three wildly distinctive dogs —Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal — than I ever was in Fern’s struggles in the midwest.

To set the stage, Elizabeth Lo hits us with a reminder that Turkish authorities have tried to eradicate stray dogs since 1909, essentially leading to Instanbul’s street dogs’ mass killings for the last century. It is a crushing start to the film, admittedly, but we also learn that mass protests have transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog. We begin to follow our first dog, Zeytin, a tan-colored beauty roaming the streets. She’s been around; Zeytin is acutely aware of her surroundings and knows how not to overstep her boundaries. She moves purposely, and it boggles my mind how Elizabeth Lo and her crew managed to keep up with the bustling pooch.

 There is little dialogue in the film. Most of what we hear are conversations people have about their loveless relationships or political unrest, all uninteresting and dull for Zeytin. Yet, she’s so expressive with her eyes it almost seems as so she understands every word. In one scene, as Zeytin waits patiently for the sanitation workers to perhaps throw her a bone or two, we overhear one of the workers say to one another that he should take Zeytin because she’s tan-colored and beautiful.

The man agrees she is gorgeous but claims he already owns a dog. Throughout this brief conversation, Elizabeth Lo fixes the camera on Zeytin’s almost-pensive-like gaze. It is a striking scene, no doubt; I even half-expected Zeytin to turn around and talk back to the men and plead her case. I wondered myself, what could Zeytin be thinking? What do her longing stares at people conversing over coffee and sweet tulumba mean? Surviving on scraps and old bones while humans argue over social media drama doesn’t seem like a fair tradeoff for Zeytin, but alas, she keeps moving, and so does the brisk film. 

Although we follow Zeytin mostly, Stray introduces us to two other dogs Nazar and Kartal. Nazar is comfortable interacting with humans and becomes a nurturing and warm presence. At the same time, Kartal is a timid pup who finds refuge with a couple of security guards on the town’s outskirts. Good luck trying to decide which dog is the cutest —an impossible task —I wanted to reach my hand right through the monitor and pet them all uncontrollably. Eventually, the dogs intersect when they encounter and ultimately warm up to a group of young and down-on-their-luck Syrian boys. They care deeply for these dogs despite not having anywhere to go — equipped with a blanket and nothing but their youth — they take the dogs in, and it is truly a heartwarming reminder of how good humans can be why they want to be.

Without spoiling too much, I will say that Stray manages to weave a surprisingly touching narrative that ends bittersweetly but also leaves you wanting more of Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal. Even now, I’m thinking of them. Have they been fed today? Are they alright? Elizabeth Lo films the scenes at a low angle at times, and it truly allows you to immerse yourself in the world of these dogs; so much so, I often felt I was just a pup that decided to follow Zeytin around the streets of Istanbul.

A film with so little dialogue can rarely elicit so many emotions, and Stray manages to do just that with its lean 72-minute runtime. I feel bad for the cats, though; they could not catch a break in this film; even one had to climb up a tree hurriedly to escape the clutches of Zeytin at one point. Stray is an excellent feature debut for Elizabeth Lo, and I eagerly await her next effort.

Stray is now available in theaters and on-demand.

 

Stray
  • 8.5/10
    Stray - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

A film with so little dialogue can rarely elicit so many emotions, and Stray manages to do just that with its lean 72-minute runtime. I feel bad for the cats, though; they could not catch a break in this film; even one had to climb up a tree hurriedly to escape the clutches of Zeytin at one point. Stray is an excellent feature debut for Elizabeth Lo, and I eagerly await her next effort.