Movie Review: Cheap Motel? Beware of the “Stray Dolls”

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Beware those who haunt the seedy motels of America. They’re not just the traditional hunting grounds of the Norman Bates/Aileen Wuornos crowd.

That’s where Riz tumbles ashore, a new  arrival from India who never plans on going home.

She may be naive enough to let the too-helpful desk clerk and owner take her passport –“We get you AMERICAN one!” — and shove her into a job, cleaning the rooms. But it wasn’t just fate and desperation that brought Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) here. And the first predators she meets — that Russian owner (Cynthia Nixon), the 20ish maid/hooker she makes Riz room with (Olivia DeJonge) or the other Indian (Samrat Chakrabarti) staying there — had best keep a watchful eye.

This prey has a past. And this place, the Tides Plaza Motel in Poughkeepsie, isn’t the trap it first seems — for her.

“Stray Dolls” is a bracing if uneven debut feature by editor-turned-director Sonejuhi Sinha, a seedy crime story of the “Motel Noir” genre.  We can tell that by its opening moments, Riz and her roomie Dallas (DeLonge), dressed in cheap blonde wigs, their faces giving away in an instant that they’re not headed out for a night of fun, or even trolling for Johns. There’s bad intent in those scowls.

The long flashback that follows shows that they didn’t start out that way. Riz is shoved into a room with her fellow maid, only to be robbed by the girl with the stripper/hooker name the moment she walks in on her.

Dallas is quick to pull a knife, quicker with a threat. She wants “OUT of here,” and Riz might be her latest ticket of escape. Rob the customers and she’ll “give you your stuff back.”

Can she do that? As she cleans one patron’s room, we realize she can. So does she. Sal (Chakrabarti) speaks to her in Hindi and offers her chai. Then he gets down to business.

“How much to see you in one of those towels?”

In the Tides Plaza, there are no “predators” and “prey.” Only predators. And when Dallas turns friendlier and asks Riz about her past, her scars, we stop fearing for the illegal immigrant — just a little.

Una (Nixon) may coo motherly nothings about having a “big heart” and wanting to help. Dallas may talk tough, but she’s waiting for her sometime squeeze Jimmy (Robert Aramayo) to make that one drug deal that will rescue her.

And they may be two diminutive young women swimming in a motel pool full of sharks. But nobody should underestimate their survival instincts or survival skills.

Young film school trust fund filmmakers make movies based on other movies, and that’s what “Stray Dolls” feels like. It’s gritty reality grounded in cinema.

One thing that works against Sinha’s film is that we don’t buy that Thapa’s Riz is “fresh off the boat,” not for a second. Her calls home, lying about “I love it here, the skies are so blue” (it’s winter, and “grey” is a good day) and swimming in the pool that’s “shaped like a…kidney bean” (the pool was paved over years ago) are the most innocent moments she can manage.

Riz led a hard life to get here, and whatever street life she led back home makes the “sweet innocent” plays plays with her mother on the phone her best acting job.

DeJonge plays a discount motel cliche — a closet full of fishnets, hot pants, and rage. She makes enough money for cheap clothes and a phone. The cocaine she craves and slips into Riz’s milkshake? She must score that from Jimmy.

Nixon’s Russian accent goes and comes — mostly goes. And Aramayo’s “Jimmy” is every dead-ender who chose to get a snake tattooed on his neck without a thought for the life that sentenced him to.

But the violence, when it comes, is shocking. The native cunning, when it makes itself known, is chilling.

And the American dream of the dead broke “huddled masses,” symbolized by a brochure for Niagara Falls, is a lot further away than the Tides Plaza Motel’s owner lets on.

How’re two broke hustlers supposed to cover 375 miles with no money, no car and no passports?

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MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, drug abuse, sex, profanity

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Geetanjali Thapa, Robert Aramayo,  Samrat Chakrabarti and Cynthia Nixon.

Credits: Directed by Sonejuhi Sinha, script by Charlotte Rabate, Sonejuhi Sinha.   A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:37

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