Nena Eskridge’s feature debut Stray opens with an idyll shattered. Shots of a peaceful pond, of countryside verdure, of sheep at pasture, and the sound of birds chirping, are disrupted as we see a young woman flee from the back of a van, screaming. This is Jennifer Davis (Gabrielle Stone), and as an older man (Paul McNair) grabs at her, she turns and stabs him through his tattooed forearm with her penknife. She runs, looks back at her assailant, and runs again, before jumping a train that will eventually take her to the leafy neighbourhood of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.
Here we see what will become a recurring pattern in Jennifer’s characterisation: always fugitive, always looking back, always occupying that shadowy ground between victim and villain. On the train she meets widower Martin Brightman (Andrew Sensenig), old enough to be her father, and after inviting herself into his home and hopping into his bed, asks him to marry her – all within a space of fewer than 24 hours. Equally flattered and flabbergasted, Martin politely declines Jennifer’s unorthodox offer – and after a narrative ellipsis, in the next sequence we see Jennifer once more wiping blood from her blade.
Now ensconced in Martin’s big house, Jennifer gets work as a cook at a nearby bar, and sets her sights on its philandering owner Greg (Dan McGlaughlin), all the while doing her best to undermine his fiancée Sarah (Samantha Fairfield Walsh). Yet just as her dream of settling down seems finally to be coming true, Jennifer learns both that actual families do not conform to her imagined ideal, and that her own troubled past (from which she still bears scars both physical and mental) cannot simply be set aside.
Stray sets itself up as a classic ‘bunny boiler‘ thriller in which an unhinged interloper insinuates herself into the existences of others, bringing with her a chaotic destruction that both reflects and amplifies their own existing dysfunction. For like the lead antagonists of Fatal Attraction (1987), Single White Female (1992) or Poison Ivy (1992), Jennifer, once she has breezed into town, identifies all the tensions in Greg’s relationship with Sarah, and then drives a wedge between them in her own driven desire to replace Sarah and form a domestic unit with Greg. Yet, unusually, the film is much more focused on the contradictory character of Jennifer herself, as much a source of our sympathy as our fear. We know that she is capable of violence and worse, but are also aware that she is on the run from a history of abuse that always manages, in one way or another, to catch up with her. By the end, we are willing Jennifer on to realise her dream – an American dream – of a committed spouse, a picket fence, kids and a loving family, only to be confronted with the impossibility of this for someone in her headspace and with her background.
In other words, by the end Stray is more a tragedy of entrapment, with Jennifer caught up in a cycle of damage from which we would like to see her escape as much as she would. Whether the ghost who keeps returning from her past is real or just embedded in her psyche, he drives her on to remain forever unsettled – a stray drifting through other people’s lives and, vampire-like, leaving in her wake the vicious infection of her own trauma.
To my tastes, Stray is a little overlong, and at times too melodramatic, even soapy, in the presentation of its central triangle – but at its core it tells a dark and devastating tale of a broken home and its eternal recurrence for an individual who, having lived there once, has never really been able to leave its malign influence or renegotiate a path to normalcy. Adjustments must of course be made for the film’s budget, whose micro status is, very much to Eskridge’s credit as a filmmaker, hardly ever apparent on screen. Arita Trahan, as Greg’s seen-it-all sop of a mother Edna, steals the show, providing an emotional foil for Stone’s lead character, and embodying the film’s only ray, however slender, of hope for a better future.
© Anton Bitel