Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known…
This month on Netflix, British actor-writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White (Small Axe: Mangrove) debuts his first feature-length film The Strays. The U.K.-based psychological thriller is the latest title in the suburban nightmare subgenr: spotless exteriors (both people and their picture-perfect homes) masking dark truths.
Neve Williams (Ashley Madekwe, a.k.a. Detective Eudoria Patch from Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy) is a biracial woman living a dream life in an affluent British town. She lives in a beautiful house with her husband Ian (Justin Salinger) and works as deputy head of a private school where her children Sebastian (Samuel Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida) attend. The Williamses are seemingly the only nonwhite family in the area and that’s exactly how Neve wants it to be.
Though it appears like she effortlessly blends in among her white neighbors, colleagues, and friends, Neve’s nervous tick of scratching under her wigs tells us otherwise. Her anxiety increases when she notices a young Black man and woman who are very out of place in her lily-white world. Not much can be said about Marvin (Jorden Myrie) and Abigail (Bukky Bakray) without giving away spoilers. But from Neve’s point-of-view, the mysterious pair pose a threat to the neighborhood, her children, and her life.
Neve is the only one visibly unnerved by the presence of Marvin and Abigail, which her friends and family find strange since she herself is, you know, Black. Her light skin likely makes life easier and she’s more than mastered code-switching in these predominantly white spaces, but she’s not trying to pass as a white woman. Of course, her teenage son and daughter are currently forming their own identities, trying out different “ethnic” hairstyles, and listening to rap.
As someone being watched by expressionless strangers, Neve’s initial reaction isn’t too surprising. But as she sees them around town more often (and Marvin becomes a janitor at the school), her paranoia and anger lead to irrational behavior. It can be assumed these are people from Neve’s past infiltrating her crafted life as an upper-middle-class woman living in suburbia. But why are they there? To make her confront her inherent Blackness? We get a glimpse of Neve before she becomes a polished lady but the central mystery is what’s motivating Marvin and Abigail.
Ashley Madekwe delivers an emotionally-charged performance as Neve, capturing the growing fear and frustration of dealing with the watchful eyes of outsiders. Behind her forced smile and slightly posh accent, she still feels like an outsider herself. This is the environment she wants to be in, but it takes work for her to blend in, hiding her natural hair and throwing charity galas in the backyard. Neve also practices greeting neighbors in the mirror as if she hasn’t lived there for at least a decade.
One major element of unease in The Strays is the sound design, namely the persistent sound of Neve’s nails scratching her scalp underneath her wigs. There’s nothing unusual about the act itself but her urge to scratch increases throughout the film, creating an undeniable feeling of anxiety. This use of constant sound extends to a scene with a faucet that’s left running for a good fifteen minutes. It’s not as unnerving as scratching but stressful nonetheless. The film also uses the absence of sound in some scenes, often when the camera zooms in on Neve while she’s mentally out of it. Everything slows down and all background noise becomes muffled, fading away. In its place is foreboding music, the high-pitched tinnitus effect, or just silence.
During a conversation with Dr. Midge Gillies at a University of Cambridge literary event, Nathaniel Martello-White discussed the film’s music, describing it as orchestral and idyllic. In the opening title sequence, composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (Censor, Living) uses a whimsical orchestra that has an old Hollywood vibe, similar to the powerful and dreamy score in Pearl.
The trailer for The Strays shows more than it needs to (as is the norm these days), featuring quite a few key scenes in its two-minute runtime. However, I feel like it’s a bit misleading. Naturally, any film or series by and/or starring Black artists with the slightest hint of horror is immediately called a Jordan Peele rip-off. Well, The Strays isn’t the Peele-esque horror tale audiences expect it to be. And while it’s certainly eerie and at times surreal, it’s also not a horror film at all. Martello-White credits Michael Haneke (Funny Games) as an influence on the film, and if you’ve seen any of the Austrian filmmaker’s work, particularly the tense and unsettling Caché (or Hidden), it definitely shows.
Nathaniel Martello-White’s The Strays is an atmospheric thriller centered on a woman whose past literally comes back to haunt her. The film touches on themes of class, discrimination, and internalized racism, without ever explicitly saying as much, trusting the audience to see the sociopolitical connections on their own. While the history of the two antagonists is rather predictable, the film maintains an intriguingly foreboding tone that’ll keep viewers engaged.
The Strays premieres February 22, 2023, on Netflix.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.