Neve, who leads an idyllic life in the suburbs with her loving family, and works a fulfilling job at a private school. But when she begins to notice a strange man and woman appear unexpectedly at odd moments, she starts to doubt her sanity. Of course, she turns to her family and friends for assistance, but Neve is helpless when they hesitate to believe her.
6 / 10
A thought provoking debut.
Strays is an interesting and thought provoking debut by writer/director Nathaniel Martello-White. A woman flees an abusive life to create her ideal world with another man, only her past will not stay buried.
That’s the basic outline, but Strays deals with a lot more. Told initially from Cheryl/Neve’s viewpoint, we meet a woman who wanted more from her life. Clearly scared by her partner, she just leaves her life, walking out one day. We then move to see the new life she’s created, a perfect suburban lifestyle. She’s a successful deputy head teacher at an exclusive private school and is fundraising for a charity to help underprivileged children in Africa.
But Neve is more complicated than the stepford wife she is trying to portray. She’s literally run from her past, and everything about it. She’s living a ‘white’ lifestyle with her cultural heritage hidden from herself. She won’t let her children identify as black, she’s working at the most privileged of environments, and acting as a saviour for black children she’ll never meet, guilting her neighbours into donating money to the charity that is used to improve her social standing, far more than it is to benefit the recipients of the charity.
She’s not entirely comfortable with her place though, self consciously scratching herself under the straight haired wigs she wears to hide her natural hair. Her makeup also whitens her skin so she ‘fits’ more comfortably as a blackish woman in white society.
Then things start to fall apart, because Neve didn’t just run away from her life as Cheryl when she left her partner, she also left her children, Marvin and Abigail, who have now returned after years of separation. Both have been traumatised by their lives since their mother abandoned them, in and out of care and foster homes, unwanted and unloved. Neve is terrified that their return will destroy the life she has carefully crafted. They’re a reminder of her old life, her failed life, and it is absolutely important to note that these children are darker than her new children, it’s impossible for them to ‘pass’ as Neve has tried to ensure her new children do.
Forced to confront her past, Neve opts to pay off her children to leave her life, burying her dirty secret with £20,000 and a vague promise to work on their relationship. Neve even tries to justify abandoning her children to her new family by saying she’s done nothing worse than many men (and there is a point here, as a woman, walking out on your children is considered far worse than a man doing the same). It’s another issue for black families who are 24% single mothers in the UK, vs 10% for single white mothers.
Neve, again selfishly buys off her guilt and expects it to just go away, an act of reparation for her previous transgressions. But her children wanted more, despite Marvin’s anger and aggression, he wanted to be loved, to create a family for his sister and himself. So when Abigail’s birthday comes around, her fragile psyche is broken and Marvin returns with her for a final confrontation with Neve.
True to her nature, in a jarring final scene, with the violent chaos of her life and choices closing in on her and her family, Neve opts once again to run away, leaving her children, new and old to deal with the consequences of her actions. The sudden end is jarring and may be disappointing to some viewers, but it’s a perfect end as Neve leaves to most likely, repeat this one more time.
Gender politics, cultural politics, black shame, white guilt, colonial legacy, white privilege, broken families, there is so much to unpack in Strays that the viewer can look at this as a dark tragic drama, or pull on any one thread that Nathaniel Martello-White has left dangling. The performances are all excellent and the slow building tension is expertly crafted. It’s not a film I’ll likely watch again, but hours later, I’m still pulling on those threads.