Film Review: A Stray

Two “strays” in this highly episodic yet moving film—a Somali refugee named Adan and a Jack Russell terrier he calls Ayla—both look for acceptance in a hostile and confusing world.
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It’s clear almost immediately that Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman) may be his own worst enemy. While most of his friends among the Somali refugees living in Minneapolis, Minnesota (which has the world’s largest Somali population outside of Somalia itself) have found jobs and established a life for themselves, young Adan just can’t seem to get it together. His mother kicked him out of their home for stealing and selling some of her jewelry, and the pals he’s been staying with can no longer put up with his headstrong ways. When he seeks shelter in a mosque, however, Adan is befriended by an iman who lets him stay there in exchange for performing some small chores.

More good luck befalls Adan when he’s hired for a real job to make food deliveries for a restaurant next door. But soon enough he’s in trouble again for having an accident in his boss’ car and nearly running over a stray dog. Even though he’s Muslim—a religion teaching that dogs are to be shunned because they’re unclean—a worried Adan manages to get the injured animal to a veterinarian, who treats his minor injuries but refuses to take him in. Since Adan finds it impossible to abandon the pooch he calls Ayla, he gamely sets out to find him a home, putting him into a carryall bag to lug him through the city streets. Not surprisingly, they encounter rejection after rejection. No one seems willing to take in the young man or his dog—and, naturally, a serious bond develops between the two unwanted strays.

This simple but meandering story may sound trite and unoriginal, but in the hands of writer/director Musa Syeed and his excellent cast of Somali actors (most of whom live in Minneapolis), A Stray evolves into a truly empathetic look at the immigrant experience in today’s jittery American “homeland.” Separated from the cultural traditions of his birth country and confused by the role models as well as the survival options presented to him in the U.S., a young man like Adan is quite literally forced to develop his own character and find his own morality. Will he go astray (no pun intended) and survive by dealing drugs or some other shady means? Or will he take the attractive rewards offered by an FBI agent (Christina Baldwin) in return for finding and reporting on possible terrorist activities in the Somali community? Or, ultimately, will Adan have the moral strength to figure out the best path for him—and, of course, for his loyal sidekick Ayla? You’ll find no easy answers in this deceptively simple film. Indeed, A Stray poses only the most difficult questions.

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