(director/writer: Dustin Feneley; cinematographer: Ari Wegner; editor: Dione Chard; music: Rhian Sheehan; cast: Kieran Charnock (Jack), Arta Dobroshi (Grace), Luciane Buchanan (Lily), Joel Fili (Probation Officer), Sez Niederer (Psychiatric Nurse), Gerard Murphy (old man); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Desray Armstrong/Dustin Feneley; Gravitas Ventures; 2018-New Zealand)

“It’s the kind of indie art-house film that lets you love it for itself.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stray premiered at the 2018 Moscow International Film Festival.

It’s the auspicious feature film debut of the Australian-born and New Zealand-based writer-director Dustin Feneley. The self-funded film sat around for eight years until a crowdfunding campaign pulled in $125,000 to raise enough money to get the film completed. It’s a well-crafted and well-acted lyrical tone-poem about strangers, a young man and a young woman, who are both outcasts, psychologically hurting and seemingly lost without help from family or friends, who meet on the so-called ‘cute’ in the remote mountains of Central Otago, in the area of South Island, New Zealand.

The dialogue is sparse, while the visuals of the scenic landscape are magnificently filmed by DP Ari Wegner. It’s the kind of indie art-house film that lets you love it for itself or loses you because you resist getting into its bleak narrative. It plays out as an insightful observational character driven story if you patiently watch the slow-moving movie develop. In other words, it’s much like normal life is when it’s not scripted. With this in mind, it should make for a curious watch for the right viewer.

Jack (Kieran Charnock) is a soft-spoken and athletically fit twenty-something with a rage he tries to contain within. He’s being released from prison after serving a jail-term for trying to kill the old man neighbor (Gerard Murphy) who killed his girlfriend in a hit and run. When told by his parole officer (Joel Fili) that the work program he expected to be part of upon release has been cut because the employer is no longer interested, an upset Jack gets on a ferry and runs far away from the unnamed detention center located somewhere in the Wellington area to his isolated mountain cabin. In his self-made prison home, with beautiful vistas, he is filled with no inner peace and with no job prospects and has none of his folks around to help. So he tries to keep busy by chopping wood, praying while on his hands and knees, and playing a bingo game at a local dreary hall with only senior citizens. At the same time, the passive-aggressive Grace (Arta Dobroshi, starred in the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence) is released with a supply of meds from a psychiatric facility in Alexandra, but finds herself homeless and alone, a long way from home and without a place to stay. She reaches Jack’s cabin after hitching rides and crashes there when caught by him at night.

In the wintry setting, the two vulnerable outsiders face a cold world, an uncertain future and a burdensome loneliness but at least can now do it together if they make a human connection and can heal from their tortured past.

It’s a perceptive drama about the human condition that makes for a compelling watch.

Stray is the
      best-photographed New Zealand movie since Out of the Blue and In
      My Father's Den.