STRAY DOLLS – movie review

Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sonejuhi Sinha
Screenwriter: Sonejuhi Sinha, Charlotte Rabate
Cast: Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia DeJonge, Cynthia Nixon, Robert Aramayo, Samrat Chakrabarti
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/8/20
Opens: April 27, 2020

Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) is an immigrant whom Trump would like to put in the gallery during his delivery of the State of the Union message, not as his hero (Rush Limbaugh is more his type) but representing the threat that immigrants supposedly pose to our country. Riz, a petty thief who runs out of her native India before she becomes a hardened criminal, comes to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. Though wanting to follow the rules at first, she realizes that a newcomer to our shores has to do a lot more than serve as a chambermaid in the Poughkeepsie, New York motel owned by Una (Cynthia Nixon). Though she starts out an immigrant that the American people with good, progressive souls insist are a treasure, she falls into felonious violence after meeting Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), the sleazy roommate that Una makes her share her room as though she would ever have a “no vacancy” sign on the grounds outside.

The story’s setup is intriguing. Put two people together who appear with opposite personalities—Dallas, a blond who works on narcotic sales partnered with Una’s son Jimmy (Robert Aramayo—who could play Dr. Oz should a doc be considered; and Riz, a dark-haired woman about the same age who Dallas at first thinks is “a Mexican or something,”a relatively quiet gal learning the ropes from someone with considerable knowledge of the drug trade and with a sexual partner.

Strangely it is Riz, not Dallas, who takes the initiative early on by stealing a brick of coke from motel guest Sal Samrat Chakrabarti), though not until Sal offers her compatriot money if she would let him see herself “with a towel around her.” He accuses Una, though everyone knows that the first person who gets accusations is the room’s maid. When he rightly suspects Riz and Dallas he launches a spiral of violence that will motivate the two to leave town fast.

Everyone in the movie is flawed. Una, an immigrant herself, shreds Riz’s passport as though she were running a den of prostitution, though she had insisted that her new maid forget about making money with sex. Riz, who calls home from a public phone, lies about how she is enjoying America, swimming and anticipating sending money back to her folks in India, though she will never be able to do so without criminal activities. Dallas, the fast-talking maid, is tough as nails and taking no crap from her boyfriend, comes around to planning an escape from Poughkeepsie.

This is director Sonejuhi Sinha’s first feature narrative, though her shorts could be looked as a almost prequels to this work. Her “Miles of Sand” is about a single mother in India determined to repay her debts, while “Love Comes Later” focuses on an undocumented motel employee. In her notes Sinha advises that motels are a hotbed of crime and that crimes committed by women have gone up ten times over in the 1990s. If you want to take her “Stray Dolls” (the title presumably comparing the marginal characters to pathetic, scruffy and unwanted stray dogs) to be about female empowerment, that would not be unreasonable, though these are not the kinds of people who would be models that a feminist politician like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez would embrace. Still, they do what they think they have to do, when following the law would guarantee them the equivalent of a life spent in Poughkeepsie. Should we root for them?

97 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

THE FLORIDA PROJECT – movie review


    Director:  Sean Baker
    Screenwriter:  Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
    Cast:  Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/27/17
    Opens: October 6, 2017
    The Florida Project Movie Poster
    If you want to see the type of person that many working class supporters of Donald Trump hate, this is the movie you’ve got to see.  The principal character, or I should say the principal adult since the focus here is on children, is Halley (Bria Vinaite).  She is a woman who depends on welfare yet makes money on the side by prostituting herself, by scamming guests in hotels near Disneyworld, by outright stealing.  She curses up a storm, having little respect for anyone who challenges her way of life, and yet one may conclude that she is the kind of mother a six-year-old can love without complaints.  She is the reason that Trump became President.

    “The Florida Project,” directed by Sean Baker, whose “Tangerine” focuses on a working class girl who on Christmas Eve seeks the person who broke her heart, is in his métier—honing in on people who know that they’re invisible to polite society.  However as future parents they did not prepare for a life of earning, they can sell nothing but their bodies at night while scamming people during the day.

    Halley and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) live in a budget motel outside Orlando.  One look at the mom and you could guess that appearances do not deceive.  Her blue-dyed hair virtually matches the purple door to the room.  Her lower lip is adorned with a silver bead and her skin is covered with tattoos.  She is more like a friend to her daughter than the little girl’s caretaker.  For her part little Moonee has energy which, if harnessed, could light up the Magic Castle in Disneyworld.  She spends the days with her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).  While on summer vacation from school they play pranks on the fellow residents, which include spitting on a car, and have kids’ conversations come across as wild improvisations.  There are no beginnings, middles and ends to these youthful adventures, just a series of anecdotes that do not lead anywhere; at least not until child welfare forces intervene to find a place more acceptable to polite society for a kid to be raised.

    Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel’s manager, regularly threatens to throw Halley out, whether for smoking in the room or not coming up with the $38/daily rent.  But he has a soft spot in his heart for Moonee, and who, after all, could not?  The six-year-old girl could be a sociopath in the making given the lack of discipline from her mother and her readiness to emulate Halley’s free-floating hostility, but right now she’s living large despite her mom’s lack of money and job security.  Yet she does what she can to meet her mom’s approval, and in return she gets to go to a coffee shop and order waffles, strawberries, extra bacon and whatever else the place has on its breakfast specials.

    The entire project could easily give the theater audience the feeling that the best years of their lives have passed, the days, weeks and months where a hike or a race with friends your age is aglow with natural beauty, and you can to say what you want and when you want to adults without fear of real punishment.  The performances, especially by Brooklynn Prince, are wholly absorbing, the fast-moving cinematic project electrified with action.  Director Baker, whose “Tangerine” was taken entirely on his i-phone, this time breaks out to afford a fully fleshed-out story of the energy, curiosity, and easy friendship that are ours during a time that parents do well to stay mostly out of the way, acting as leaders only when adult authorities compel them to do so.

    Rated R.  115 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Story – B+
    Acting – A-
    Technical – A-
    Overall – A-