Having relocated to America in the hope of building a new life, Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) takes a housekeeping job at a sleazy motel run by the formidable Una (Cynthia Nixon). Riz winds up sharing a room with fellow maid Dallas (Olivia DeJonge). Ruthless and street smart, the knife-wielding Dallas promptly blackmails Riz into stealing a valuable brick of cocaine from a smuggler hiding out at the motel. Dallas then brings in street hustling lowlife Jimmy (Robert Aramayo), her on-off boyfriend who also happens to be Una’s son, as part of a plan to trade the coke for a score big enough to change all their lives. Having gained each other’s confidence Riz and Dallas’ relationship grows more intimate. Tragically however this sparks a string of violent events that threaten Riz's pursuit of her American dream.
On the surface this neo-noir thriller fused with a lesbian romance evokes the Wachowski siblings' breakthrough effort Bound (1996). Yet Stray Dolls also aspires to be a caustic fable about how the pursuit of the American Dream corrupts and destroys those that seek it most desperately. Set almost entirely at Una's motel: an evocative, aptly seedy and desolate, neon-drenched environment populated by junkies, criminals, dropouts and layabouts, director/co-screenwriter Sonejuhi Sinha's feature debut offers a grim portrait of life on America's lowest economic rung; spotlighting the plight of migrant workers.
As underscored by a scene where a TV in the background plays then-President Donald Trump delivering his inauguration speech the plot unspools in the shadow cast by his toxic influence and the dog eat dog ethos that permeated America. Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, returning to her indie film roots, delivers an all too credible turn as the kind of mercenary individual likely to exploit and dehumanize a migrant in the name of business; even though she herself is an immigrant with a dream. She immediately confiscates Riz's passport effectively making her as much a prisoner as an employee. That said, in a pleasing break from cliché, Riz is drawn as neither entirely naive nor innocent. We learn that in Riz's native India she was a petty crook who ran with a street gang and even murdered her rapist. Indeed Riz quickly proves herself far more skilled and resourceful a criminal than Dallas and Jimmy expect, willing to go the extra mile to build a brighter future.
Sinha maintains a brisk pace throughout that propels viewers headlong into an evocative milieu albeit occasionally at the expense of letting the core relationship develop naturally. Given Dallas' ambiguous early treatment of Riz (i.e. stealing her possessions, holding her at knifepoint, drugging her milkshake) their bond evolves a little too rapidly from tentative friendship to tragic lovers to be wholly believable. Despite the efforts of a uniformly excellent cast none of the characters are entirely engaging. Not even Riz who teeters from sympathetic to inscrutable sociopath. Nevertheless Stray Dolls does at least manage to make us understand why they are the way they are. Indeed the film pulls off the odd affecting moment via Riz's phone conversations with family back home whom she regales with tall tales of her American adventure, in stark contrast to a reality spiraling wildly out of control. After a strong start the film grows meandering and aimless, unsure how to reconcile its ambitions towards socio-political commentary with an ultimately conventional B thriller plot. Much as Riz is unable to reconcile her vision of the American dream with its grimy reality.