The long distance move of a family on the mend, has them seeking help in the most unusual of places. ‘The Stray’ tells the true story of how a stray dog, named “Pluto,” comes out of nowhere and impacts the Davis family, who are struggling to find happiness within their home in many ways. In just a short time, Pluto the “wonderdog” manages quite an impact in saving a toddler, bringing comfort and companionship to a hurting 9-year-old boy, helping restore a marriage, and repairing a broken father-son relationship that remains on the rocks. Pluto is not only a guard dog; he’s a guardian angel. Sometimes help comes from the most unlikely places. Sometimes our prayers get answered in strange ways. Sometimes one dog can change everything. ‘The Stray’s is written and directed by Mitch Davis, and is rated PG for thematic elements including a scene involving peril.
The most credible of screenwriters can take a sour script and make it entertaining for all of the right reasons. They are master magicians at taking any kind of negative within the story and adapting it for proper comprehension at the viewer’s request. Even still though, there’s an even bigger problem when said writer is the real life father depicted in the movie, as it kind of becomes a conflict of interests, for what might be entertaining to him could be lagging to the audience who take it all in. That’s the biggest in a funnel of problems that overtakes a movie like ‘The Stray’, the latest sappy religious flick intended to tug at the heartstrings of its viewers without earning the dramatic pulse necessary in giving its biographical details merit. I don’t want to take the joy away from the Davis family, particularly Mitch, for him thinking this film was a surefire hit that just had to be made, but his film is as boring as changing the filter from a dryer. It’s 82 minutes of corny atmospheric sludge that feels disingenuous behind every turn and feels hollow in progression the closer that you get to it. I have been stuck with a few of these religious films every year, and ‘The Stray’ feels like it has the least to say or do to justify why its intended audience should be entertained by its story.
The film and real life setting is the early 90’s, and thankfully this designation makes it a little easier to swallow why some of the parents in the film are making some incredibly inhumane decisions. For one, there’s a scene when the youngest daughter of the Davis’s, 4-year-old Mackenzie manages to walk right off of their property with these two parents occupied elsewhere. I’m not going to say these are awful parents, but instead focus on the scene when she is found at the park with adults all around her. The father pulls up, grabs her, and brings her into the car. Did no one ask questions why this girl is missing in the first place? Does everyone believe that this is indeed the father of said child because he hugged her? Who cares though, right? Another convenience of this impeccable setting is the camping scene in which Mitch takes his son and two other boys he just met on a long-distance camping trip. Mitch meets their fathers and immediately asks to take them away for the weekend. This doesn’t seem strange to anyone, huh? Maybe my problem is that I’m stuck in 2017 and I can’t think outside of the box to reach the logical stem that is 90’s mentality.
Then there’s the padding of the screenplay that seems well determined to reach its timely goal by extending the necessities of every scene. Sometimes less is more when a scene has nothing of substance to add to the unfurling of the plot, but in Davis’s film we are treated a barrage of what has to be improv. I say that because I can’t believe for a second that any credible writer could extend a ‘Shit your pants’ gag for over two minutes. The focus as a whole for the film seems immensely in the wrong place, silencing or omitting out the title character from every scene except his first and last scene. I was waiting for something more to appear out of thin air for involvement, but the film just kind of forgets about him until it is required to bring him up for the emotionally stirring finale that this film shits the bed on. As for the lightning scene itself, it’s humorous to think even for a second that a studio would greenlight a scene visually depicting kids being fried by lightning, and even more laughable is its effect on them. These kids walk off lightning like it’s a bruised elbow, leaving little suspense or dramatic tension in the way of superman-like healing powers.
The production quality is very underwhelming, choosing some slightly risky avenues of filmmaking that never pay off because of its limited funding. For starters, the camera work is very agitating, taking the annoyances of handheld camera work to new lows with eye level heights that intend to put us in the shoes of our younger cast members. It’s clear that this cameraman had very little handle from a height that is much smaller that he or she is probably used to because there’s all of this shaking that feels like twitching that comes through in their sequencing. If this wasn’t enough, the editing would rather take the easy way out than do its part to help the bewildering decisions that came with crafting personal takes. These are the scenes that usually go back and forth between characters, establishing several cuts in editing that helps the free-flowing nature of a scene seamlessly. Unfortunately, the film leaves the camera on for some long takes in scenes, a fact that could work with better acting and even more importantly less extreme close-ups on the faces of every little boy. The camera work weaves its way in and out of every character like we are supposed to be intimate with them, a thought process that I would rather not approach with a majority of the ensemble being impressionable youths. When there’s adults and kids in a scene together? FORGET IT. The jarring movements of high-and-low will have you visually feeling like you are on a roller-coaster that doesn’t know when to quit, unfortunately I didn’t either.
What I did take positively from the film is at least the attempt to focus on the crumbling of this family and leaving the religion of the production to just passing mentions. I’m not someone who condemns religion in films, but it should at least serve a purpose. The use here is obvious, and thankfully we are never treated to a sermon of hymns that go overboard in hammering home their Jesus narrative. The pacing is decent enough, despite an easy twenty minutes that could easily be cut from this film in introducing one-off characters that never show up again. The acting for the film is far from anything award-worthy, and for the most part, the dialogue reads go by like a Ben Stein impression contest, but Sarah Lancaster has her grip firmly on the pulse of authenticity, emoting Michelle Davis like an actual human being and not a stereotype for the plot. She has great capability with the tears, and with a more firmly developed scene, her emotional release could warrant some goosebumps from the audience watching beyond.
THE VERDICT – ‘The Stray’ might not be the worst or most preaching of the religious exploitation films that I have seen, but it sticks to the tradition of undercooked narratives with a tedious experimental side to filmmaking that keeps that we’ve come to expect from these limited releases. Despite it being a true story, there’s so much about Davis’s reflections that feel manufactured for film, relenting to a side of family importance that takes the ridiculousness in continuing to search for a consistent direction in script and tone that it can (for lack of a better word) faithfully pursue.