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A Stray | 2016 SXSW Film Festival Review

Boy and His Dog: Syeed Offers Rare Glimpse into Urban Somali Community

For his sophomore effort, A Stray, director Musa Syeed focuses on a specific, rarely glimpsed community of Muslim refugees living in Minneapolis, an urban metropolis noted for its diverse, albeit hegemonic, communities. It’s a spare story about a woebegone young man struggling to make the best of an impossible situation, who, due to conditioned religious beliefs and without a stable home life, makes a daring decision to take an ownerless dog under his care. Though hardly as apathetic as the subject matter would indicate, the film is more an observational portrait of a community as staunchly defined by its own paradigms as the contradictory political sentiments of the sometimes hostile host culture enveloping it. A lack of complex depictions concerning various refugee crises and troubled Muslim relations in American cinema marks the film as an automatic item of note, but many may find its offering too meager or threadbare to generate the bigger picture discussions it’s inclined towards.

Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman, Captain Phillips, 2013) lives in Minneapolis’ sizable refugee community. As a Somali Muslim in the Midwest, his opportunities outside of his unstable infrastructure are limited and following the pawning of his mother’s jewelry, he’s suddenly without a place to stay. Praying for help at a mosque, Adan finds a job delivering food, but accidentally hits a stray dog while driving his boss’ car. Forced to care for the animal, he quickly grows attached but finds himself evicted by his new boss and landlord at the mosque, a creature deemed impure by their shared religion. Now, Adan must once again depend on the kindness of the insistent FBI agents trawling the community.

The specific locale of Adan’s community is a particularly infamous edifice located between the surging downtown of Minneapolis and the demure business and political arena of sister city, St. Paul. This cluster of buildings is commonly referred to by locals as the ‘crack stacks,’ or the ‘ghetto in the sky’ the fading colored panels of blue and orange an inescapable fixture in the city skyline. The Riverside Plaza is hardly as dangerous or sleazy as this confounding reputation would indicate, though these unfair assumptions still exist. Within Syeed’s film, the prominent structure looms over Adan significantly, always nearby, preternaturally inescapable as it defines his day-to-day status and limited potential as a Somali refugee within a wary urban metropolis.

But A Stray isn’t as concerned with the city outside of Adan’s limited parameters. Instead, he’s perpetually confined within a Muslim bubble, tellingly led astray from it by the lucrative options promised by law enforcement interested in making him a stool pigeon. These sequences often seem a bit cheesy and are ultimately too easily resolved.

What’s more interesting is Adan’s connection with an animal deemed unclean by his religion, but revered as man’s best friend by white culture (tellingly, when Adan accidentally hits the dog, a white jogger in the background demands he pick up the dog). The creature comfort the unassuming canine presents in Adan’s uncustomarily cold day-to-day existence is enough to warrant the sacrifice of certain opportunities, and his resulting dilemma recalls Kelly Reichardt’s eloquent 2008 film Wendy and Lucy. A bit wearying and narratively washed out, A Stray is an attenuated impression of a particular community, but could have benefited greatly from a more substantial narrative or determined character arc for Adan.

Reviewed on March 14 at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival – Narrative Feature Competition. 82 Mins.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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