Kiwi film Stray shows an ambition that is often lacking in NZ cinema

by James Robins / 15 October, 2018
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It doesn’t say much, but there is something hypnotic in Dustin Feneley’s crowdfunded debut feature Stray.

Austere, mercilessly sparse, and starkly sparing, New Zealand film-maker Dustin Feneley’s crowdfunded debut feature drifts like a glacier. Dialogue could fit to three pages, with room left over. So slow is the movement that we’re often left to ponder nothing but the Central Otago landscape of its setting. Still, there is something hypnotic at work here.

Stray follows two characters. Both have been released from institutions. For Jack (Kieran Charnock), it’s prison. Three years, now parole, his crime apparently brutal but righteous. “Purify me of my feelings of anger,” he prays bedside, hands clasped tightly. Charnock plays him as collected and soft-spoken (if he does speak) but prone to silent rages when consumed by booze. He ventures to his father’s shack, near a tiny rural town, meaning to get lost.

For Grace (Arta Dobroshi, perhaps best known for the Dardenne Brothers film Lorna’s Silence), it is a psychiatric ward. She’s handed a bottle of pills and left to meander into the wilderness. It takes an hour of Stray for her to find Jack, their first encounter threatening, then consoling and tender. The pair are fleeing from something; the film’s title a verb and a noun.

In cinema, there is a delicate and tenuous line between portraying alienation and being alienating. It’s certainly easy to grasp the despondency, the loneliness, the ennui of Jack and Grace. Stray risks infecting its audience with those emotions – or lack of emotions thereof. There’s so little to grasp onto for solid footing. The film’s power depends on and derives from just how much imaginative effort you’re willing to put in to shade the characters’ motivations and impulses.

And yet … Feneley earns a degree of respect for his formal ambition, something often lacking in New Zealand cinema until recently. In a sense, Stray is little more than a two-hour sequence of near-still images. It takes 17 minutes (believe me, I was counting) for the camera to move, and then only a slow pan, as Jack tramps through damp forest. But what gorgeous images they are – the cinematography is by Ari Wegner – artfully composed and never boring.

Rarely has the wild South looked so vast and engulfing. As if it could swallow you whole. But then, perhaps that’s what Jack and Grace wanted all along.

Video: Dustin Feneley

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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