A horror film from Russia about a child that a bereaved couple takes home from an orphanage, who turns out to be a poorer choice than he first seems. Just like the film.
Stray is a horror film from Russia (hence originally called Tvar, and it’s called Evil Boy in some countries), which intrigued me to start off with, but I’m afraid to say it lost me completely by the end, and I’m struggling so much with motivation to write about it. Will do my best!
Written and directed by Olga Gorodetskaya (her first feature, after a couple of shorts), based on a story by Anna Starobinets, Stray is about a loving family who – understandably – falls under a black cloud when six-year-old Vanya doesn’t come home from playing one day. Three years later, and his parents Polina and Igor (Elena Lyadova and Vladimir Vdovichenkov, who both played in Leviathan, amongst other titles) are struggling. She can’t bear to think Vanya could be dead, he can’t see any other answer, and both accept one (possibly stopgap) step towards a better life could be fostering a child. They visit a rather gothic-looking orphanage and make a tremendous mistake: instead of taking home any of the children on offer, they take an apparently wild child found in the cellar next to a dead caretaker.
Any viewer would know at this point things are not going to go well. Any reader of this article would know this too. I read the above paragraph to my thirteen-year-old and he knew it: “What! They’re idiots!” But not this desperate pair of grieving parents. Polina believes what this incomer needs is warmth, though Igor is suspicious of the kid’s origin. By the time Igor starts to warm to the boy (played remarkably well by young Sevastian Bugaev), the youngster’s aggressive and not-entirely-human nature is undeniable.
OK, that’s the story and the first big problem I had with the film. I’m happy that the writer and director are women, and that the complex marriage is shown as it is (feelings and opinions are rarely conveniently in sync), and admire the acting across the board. Indeed Ilya Ovsenev’s cinematography was excellent too, harking back to classic horror styles, while still remaining sharp. But as you can tell from what I wrote above, I have issues with Stray’s story; not just in terms of the couple’s big mistake, but also the explanations that come later. What happened to their son is revealed very hastily, and with no feeling, in a kind of oh-OK way. Then when the feral boy’s nature is finally accounted for, his violent nature doesn’t quite make sense.
What completely turned me off Stray, though, was the use of CGI for some brief but crucial action scenes. Visual effects, such as the boy’s creepy face early on, and careful transformation moments later, were done well; but the sudden lapse in quality negated any allowances I’d made. The team simply seemed to try too hard, much harder than necessary considering the effectiveness of the more subtle output earlier on. Stray had tonnes of potential, and I guess Sony has seen that potential too, as they have recently committed to remaking the film for Indian and Korean markets. But it just didn’t satisfy me.
The UK premiere of Stray is being screened at Grimmfest on 7 October 2020.