“The living dead exist, it’s true,” says a little girl at an orphanage near the beginning of writer/director Olga Gorodetskaya’s feature debut Stray (aka Evil Boy, aka Tvar). “I saw them alright.”
“Who was it? A boy or a girl?” asks her sceptical playmate, as a car pulls up. Inside the car is Dr Igor Vlasimirovitch (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) and his wife, the teacher Polina (Elena Lyadova). This couple too is like the living dead, trapped in unresolved grief for their five-year-old son Vanya (Yan Runov) who three years earlier had disappeared without trace. Lost to heartache, recrimination and guilt, they have come to the orphanage in an attempt to emerge from this grave state of suspension, and to adopt a new child who might hopefully, in some way, be able to divert their feelings, or even (whisper it) take Vanya’s place. While Igor looks at the children, Polina is drawn by a loud bang coming from another building, where she finds the groundskeeper Pavel (Yuriy Pavlov) dying from a self-inflicted shot to the head, and a side room where a strange young boy (Sevastian Bugaev) in a red dress is locked away.
That boy is the ‘stray’ of the title, a wild, animalistic child unaccounted for in the orphanage’s registry – and this foundling’s feral nature, his lack of hair and his generally unformed state make him the perfect blank slate on which the bereft mother and father can inscribe their desperate, damaged love. Polina is quick to call him ‘Vanya’, and the boy reflects her affection. Igor is at first more tentative in his attachment to this child, but soon comes around – until, that is, he notices that the stray is not merely occupying the space left empty by Vanya’s absence, but morphing into an uncanny replica of their missing son. Soon Polina starts believing the boy really is Vanya – something which Igor simply cannot accept to be true. When unexpectedly Polina falls pregnant and there is the real possibility of them once more having their own child, the stray feels threatened and everything will change.
Stray shifts readily into the shape of an otherworldly mystery, blurring elements from Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009), Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along (2015), the Paz Brothers’ The Golem (2018) and any number of ‘creepy kid’ films – but at heart it is a psychological story, tracing the guilt and denial, the despair and self-deceit, which enable those caught in loss to take refuge in their own wish-fulfilment fantasy rather than face the hard, unacceptable truth. If the living dead, as the little boy at the film’s beginning insists, are merely ‘spookies for kids’, then adults too are more than capable of entertaining such fictions and indulging such fairytales when they bring comfort to the otherwise inconsolable. As Igor and Polina grapple with their grief, and hope beyond hope for the impossible to happen and for their beloved to return in one way or another, the empty grave of their loss opens up to spawn a creature that brings solace as much as terror. For that loss itself, it will turn out, has no gender, no age, no soul, but can be readily accommodated and fostered by acts of transference, surrogacy and rôle play.
This is a mannered film, with a delicate autumnal hue setting the right mood of melancholy and mourning, even as DP Ilya Ovsenev’s canted, sometimes fully inverted camerawork forcefully skews our perceptions on events – an effect in no way undermined by the sheer artifice of some third-act CGI. For Stray openly advertises its own illusoriness – and in defying us to find a rational route back through its narrative, Gorodetskaya shows how susceptible we all are to suspending our disbelief about the supernatural when the underlying reality of death is much harder to countenance. Some people can never stop clinging to what is no longer there, even when they know that it is not, nor accept that the dead are not still living – and it is this paradox which the film captures with both an uncanny sense of dread and a real emotional intelligence.
strap: Olga Gorodestakaya’s Stray (Tvar) uses ‘creepy kid’ tropes to explore a grieving couple’s loss, denial and retreat into fantasy.
© Anton Bitel