I wanted to love “The Stray,” and I’d have been satisfied if it had reached as high as “liked.”
Because if you’ve ever shared your life with a dog, you’re a sucker for a movie about that “special” dog — “Max,” “My Dog Skip,” “A Dog’s Purpose,” “Marley & Me,” even “Air Bud” has its qualities.
And being about a stray dog that kids have prayed will come into their lives, who becomes a boy’s bully Equalizer, a toddler’s fearsome protector, a dad’s exercise coach and the couple’s marriage counselor, this one had possibilities.
But from the no-budget “snowstorm” opening scene, followed by the years of flashbacks of how Pluto — a “damned good dog” as they say where I come from– changes the Davis family’s lives, “The Stray” never rises to the level of maudlin.
Those flashbacks show how this dog just showed up back, in answer to the prayers of the Davis kids, as they live in California. It’s 1991, and Mitch (Michael Cassidy) is a script reader for a movie studio. They’ve sold their home in Colorado, paid to get him into USC’s film school, and all he has to show for it is a studio job that demands 20 hours a day of reading, writing “coverage” of scripts and being a “yes man” at the meetings.’
The only funny things Mitch gets to say in the picture are mixed with his endless, interrupting phone calls with colleagues — “It’s ‘Gilligan’s Island on Mars!'” “I don’t think anyone will BELIEVE Julia Roberts is a prostitute.”
Remember, it’s 1991. And Mitch is the fool who wants to turn down “Pretty Woman.”
“And Richard Gere’s old enough to be her DAD.”
Wife and mother Michelle (Sarah Lancaster) is losing patience over the absentee husband. Son Christian (Connor Corum) has no friends, nobody to teach him to throw a baseball, and has bully issues.
Maybe a dog? “If a stray shows up at our door, sure,” Michelle says. Prompting her youngest to pray for one, right in front of her.
And then this gorgeous Australian shepherd-looking animal just pops up at school. Bullies are thwarted, and soon “Pluto,” as he’s named, is making his mark on this family, even if they don’t notice this right off the bat.
A return to Colorado, where Mitch tries to write and cope with the usual menacing redneck rube neighbor — “Your dawg gets in with my sheep? I’m’o shoot’em.” — and Pluto pitches in where needed with one and all, and you’ve got yourself a heart-warmer.
Of course, it isn’t. Not this time. The acting really falls off among bit players, the story beats are cant and the film fixates on “Marley & Me/A Dog’s Purpose” bathos.
Yes, dogs die, and as sad as that is, it’s one of the best reasons to share your life with one. An animal who lives in the moment, who lives to play and shower you with kisses is to be treasured. Because you know — or will learn if you’re a child — that he or she isn’t going to be with you forever.
When you frame your picture in a grim moment of dog death, you’re saddling it with a reaction most normal viewers will recoil from. Wrapping that in a “guardian angel” allegory may comfort the kids, but speaking from experience, that’s not enough.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including a perilous situation.
Cast: Michael Cassidy, Sarah Lancaster, Connor Corum
Credits:Directed by Mitch Davis, script by Mitch Davis, Parker Davis. A PureFlix release.
Running time: 1:32