The Strays review: A twisted, twisting thriller
James R | On 26, Feb 2023
Director: Nathaniel Martello-White
Cast: Ashley Madekwe, Jorden Myrie, Bukky Bakray, Samuel Small, Maria Almeida, Justin Salinger
Your past is part of what defines who you are. That truth is right at the heart of The Strays, Netflix’s new thriller. Playing out initially like a British cousin of Get Out, its theme gets added, unsettling weight from sticking to its home turf, even as it introduces us to someone trying to do exactly the opposite.
Ashley Madekwe (County Lines) plays Neve, the deputy head of a private school who is married to insurance guy Ian (Justin Salinger). They have two mixed-race kids, Sebastian (Samuel Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida). They live a firmly middle-class life, with Neve preparing to host a fundraising gala to cement her position in the mostly white community – including practising her posh accent in the mirror every morning.
This seemingly perfect, well-off existence has cracks that gradually widen. As Neve is repeatedly reminded that she doesn’t quite fit in, she increasingly internalises her shame to the point where she practically forbids anything Black in the family home and tries not to be seen without a wig on. At the same time, two sinister figures begin to haunt her, a pair of literal and figurative spectres in her rear-view mirror.
Writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White is an astute observer of social conventions, capturing the racist microaggressions of modern British society with a sharp eye. But from the opening prologue, there are more complicated nuances at play that leave us precariously balanced between feeling sorry for Madekwe’s leading lady and questioning her behaviour. A pivot in perspective halfway through doubles down on that ambiguity, as we spend time with her two stalkers (Jorden Myrie and Bukky Bakray).
That shift isn’t the boldest card Martello-White plays in his taut 100 minutes, but it opens up the puzzle-box into a complex whydunnit rather than a who or what-dunnit – after a first act that might be seen as slightly derivative or occasionally feel false, The Strays gets better as it continues, with each fold in the narrative intentionally bringing more layers to its unreliable protagonist.
Ashley Madekwe is excellent as the fraught, fragmented mother of the house, whose fear of confrontation is only surpassed by her fear of consequences. Bukky Bakray is equally brilliant, bringing an innocence and vulnerability to a role that is always teetering on the edge of something cruel and bitter. Jordan Myrie, meanwhile, is the standout as young man trying to contain anger and resentment while working out what to do with it when it is released.
If the rest of the ensemble don’t quite get the chance to shine with as much depth, that perhaps echoes Neve’s own narrow worldview; Martello-White’s confident, economical storytelling leaves us to fill in lots of blanks, while leaving us in no doubt about Neve’s blinkered, selfish approach to life or the fact that it’s an approach born out of trauma.
As that trauma promises to be passed down a generation, The Strays crafts a domestic thriller that’s more its own thing than the superficially similar Us or Passing. It taps into a lot of tangled, timely tensions, from identity and race to class mobility, code-switching and compartmentalisation. It’s a personal, specific tale that’s about all of these and none of them, building up an enjoyably thought-provoking blend of questions before playfully answering them with a blunt, simple point. Your past is part of what defines you – and, for better or worse, you can’t change that.