The story of the American Dream has been told so many times that it might seem like it’s running out of steam, or maybe we’re just tired of hearing it. Now less about the hopeful promises it once instilled in ordinary people yearning to achieve their financial dreams no matter where they came from, it is now a reminder of the false ideology touted by America – that anyone from anywhere can find success and a happy life in this country if they simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And from The Great Gatsby to There Will Be Bood, it’s clear that the promises and end results of the American Dream are much murkier than they appear. America is darker and more difficult than simply instilling in oneself hard work and determination. America is not always a hopeful place, especially now.
In director Sonejuhi Sinha’s feature debut, the darkness of American idealism is caked in blood and cocaine. It’s disgusting and dirty and the sunlight hardly shines, and hope sinks so low in one’s stomach that they might forget it ever even existed. In her film Stray Dolls, Sinha portrays the American Dream as an endlessly downward spiral of utter degeneracy – that to truly gain the success you envision, people need get hurt in the process; that even when the light at the end of the tunnel starts to shine before your eyes, there’s a shadow still lurking somewhere behind you. Hopes are dashed and wide-eyed innocence hides immense pain and suffering, but it’s the promise of a better life that keeps us going, even in the face of futility. The film is a well-steered, character-driven saga of misery and the lengths one will go for impossible dreams, even if its narrative seems to struggle to persist as steadfastly as its characters.
Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a young Indian woman, has travelled to America not to only make a new life for herself, but to help provide for the family and friends she left behind. Though timid and innocent-seeming at first, it is revealed that Riz was part of a thieving gang in India, and she used the money she saved from mugging tourists to pay smugglers to bring her to America. Here, she begins her job as a cleaning lady at a seedy hotel somewhere in upstate New York, working for Una (Cynthia Nixon), the motel’s manager. Along with Una is her son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo, young Ned Stark in flashbacks on Game of Thrones), a typical white boy ne’er-do-well, and his girlfriend Dallas (Olivia DeJonge, Better Watch Out), who lives at the motel, cleans rooms, and dreams of owning her own nail salon. Riz is forced to share a room with Dallas, and Dallas holds a knife to her throat. Una tells Riz the motel is “like a family.”
Dallas at first seems like a bottom-of-the-barrel person; spunky white trash with a capital W.T. and described by Una as a “crackhead”, it eventually becomes clear that Riz and Dallas are not all that different. Both cutthroat young women forced into ill-fated circumstances with only themselves to truly lean on, it’s when they begin to trust each other that they find the momentum necessary to move towards their singular goal of escaping the motel. But the task of stealing a brick of cocaine from a sketchy businessman throws the two women down a much bleaker path than the one they were already on, and it forces them to seek out a means of escape that exposes the inherent darkness of their dreams for simple happiness and financial freedom.
The film is a strong debut for Sinha – measured and strikingly confident, there is a pervasive beauty in the desolation she portrays, and in her damaged, often hateful, lead characters who still remain wholly empathetic. It’s not just another take on the American Dream, but an extremely modern one. In one scene, Riz toils in the motel lobby while a broadcast of President Trump drones on via the television overhead; a reminder of the current views many Americans hold towards immigrants, persecuting them for taking hold of the ideals this country once championed. The bleakness of Stray Dolls is a product of both that devolving perspective and of the nature of the American Dream itself. It’s never been as easy as “pulling up one’s bootstraps,” but it now feels especially out of reach.
Geetanjali Thapa and Olivia DeJonge are perversely enchanting in their performances, the ruthlessness of Riz and Dallas sheltering unimaginable sadness and longing. Though young, neither woman is still a child – whatever murky pasts between them left behind in favour of the uncertain road ahead, but it’s still much brighter than what they’re running from. Cynthia Nixon’s role is an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable surprise, and Robert Aramayo encapsulates Jimmy’s dirtbaggery and cowardice. Still, it’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly what the film is missing. At only ninety-seven minutes in length, it starts to feel much longer than that as the story draws to its close, hinting at some extra narrative pull that is sorely lacking. What initially feels like a well-crafted slow burn starts to fall short, and even the magnetism of Riz and Dallas can’t distract from multiple instances where the film seems to be coming to a close, but carries on.
But our lead characters carry on, too, into an everlasting night. Their persistence is admirable, even when the choices they make might be anything but. It’s hard not to feel understanding for two women embattled by systems that only seek to oppress them, in a country that peddles the promises of success but doesn’t tell you how badly it wants to keep people like Riz and Dallas from reaching it. Despite narrative weaknesses, the film remains a captivating tale of rags-to-riches that never quite reaches the riches part. Stray Dolls is, ultimately, about the endless journey towards the horizon, and whether or not we have the strength to keep going.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs