As nearly everyone knows, a couple of months ago I changed up the way that I review films for The Independent Critic, a change mostly triggered by the fact that I was having a horrible time keeping up with the demand while maintaining anything resembling a personal life.
I caught up, or at least I thought I did until I stumbled across an e-mail this morning from writer/director Nena Eskridge inquiring about a review for a film she'd submitted, well, I'm not about to confess how long ago, and wondering if there was any chance I was actually going to get to it.
I've gotten nasty e-mails before when the wait was too long. This wasn't a nasty e-mail. In fact, it was surprisingly understanding with a hint of disappointment.
Damn. I hate that. I really do. In fact, it's exactly why I did change the way I review films on The Independent Critic and, yeah, far too late but I finally sat down to write a review for a film that I had, in fact, really watched and a film I'd have sworn I'd already reviewed.
Here's the really bummer part. It's a pretty damn good film. The film stars Gabrielle Stone, who at this point early in her career is likely destined to be referred to as Dee Wallace Stone's daughter, as Jennifer, a young woman who had a brutal childhood and has killer survival instincts but whose psyche' longs for the fantasy life - the perfect family that she never had. Determined to acquire that fantasy life, by any means necessary, Jennifer finds herself in the charming town of Chestnut Hill where she subsequently finds herself pregnant and naming Greg (Dan McGlaughlin, Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard) as the father.
Not surprisingly, his fiance', Sarah (Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Funny Bunny) isn't exactly pleased.
The film demands a compelling performance from Stone to work. Fortunately, Stone is up to the task. A rising star with films such as Speak No Evil and Aliens from Uranus to her credit, Stone manages to turn Jennifer into a compelling young whose issues are obvious yet never so far over the top that you don't feel drawn into her fantasies and disturbed yet heartfelt desires. It's a solid performance that far transcends that which is usually found in a low-budget indie. Stray is more effective as a psychological drama than it is a thriller, Jennifer's behaviors painted up front as bold and brazen in such a way that it removes any real sense of suspense for just how far she'll really go to get exactly what she wants. While that may lower the thrillers in Stray, the film works as a psychological drama and it works on the strength of Stone's performance and the film's ensemble supporting players. Andrew Sensenig shines as Marvin, a nice guy who has Jennifer's affections, at least until he decides it's time to move on. As the bar owner in Chestnut Hill who rather naively falls for Jennifer's faux vulnerability, Dan McGlaughlin makes that surprising degree of naivete actually believable, while Samantha Fairfield Walsh is solid as Sarah.
Stray's production values are incredibly solid with David Landau's lensing being a particular stand-out for the film that was shot on less than a $100,000 budget. While Eskridge's dialogue occasionally feels a bit awkward, her directorial instincts, in particular, are rock solid with a slower pace that amps up the film's creepy vibe and works quite nicely with Stone's performance.
Stray is currently available from indie distributor Indie Rights and can be seen via Amazon Prime, an absolutely stellar way to catch some of the country's freshest filmmaking voices. While Stray may not be the best film you see in 2016, it's an excellent debut from Nena Eskridge and makes me anxious to see what comes next for her.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic