Review: Stray

Written and directed by Elizabeth Lo, following the world of Zeytin, a stray dog living life on the streets of Istanbul.

Your immediate thoughts when you think of a film about stray dogs are likely going to be that it’s something incredibly sad and heart-breaking but the wonderfully surprising thing is that it’s quite the opposite. Immediately there’s a quality to Lo’s direction that really dives into the perspective of Zeytin and his furry friends, it stays at their level so you can see the world through their eyes and it’s a simple yet incredibly clever choice that draws you in within seconds. What that choice then achieves so brilliantly is to give these dogs a personality, particularly lead subject Zeytin, the way that Lo frames him in shots gives him thoughts and feelings, it’s something extremely special to watch. From start to finish Lo’s directorial style is unbelievably impressive, so much so that it’s hard to believe it’s her feature debut, what she achieves with this style is so utterly different, thoughtful and compassionate. Granted Lo is far from the first director to achieve emotion through their direction but to do so with subjects that can’t speak a single word and it’s impossible to know what they’re actually thinking, it’s superb.

This film feeds directly into human curiosity, getting to watch how different people react to Zeytin and his fellow strays, it’s such a cross-section of positive to negative that it’s fascinating. It’s so wholesome and heart-warming to watch the reaction of those who feed them, care for them or even just approach them on the street without fear or apprehension. The story then delves into slightly darker territory with a group of homeless Syrian boys who have connected to the dogs as they cross paths. There’s a very clear parable between Zeytin and this group, both homeless and relying on strangers to survive, the dogs almost provide a simple comfort to them, giving them a way to feel in control, to be caring for someone else rather than needing to be cared for. It already has you hooked and then it reels you in with the puppies, it appeals so strongly to that instinct to protect young life that it double down on your pulling your attention.

There’s a quality to the way it’s edited together that adds tension and suspense, for instance when the dogs near traffic, you’re holding your breath willing them to get across safely, and it further adds to that clever quality. It’s impressive with the unpredictable quality to the footage Lo must have been capturing that the end result has such a consistent progression to its story, it’s even comparable to a drama in that aspect. All of those qualities are then only amplified by its fantastic cinematography, dogs are photogenic beings to begin with but the way that these dogs are shot is a thing of beauty, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch and there are so many iconic shots which again, add so much personality to these sweet, gentle creatures. The cherry on top being the score which simply pushes the emotions of its visual even further.

Stray is surprisingly compelling, it gives an utterly new perspective and its style holds so much personality and charisma, it doesn’t just follow stray dogs, it gives them an identity and makes you just as invested in their story as any human. It’s a fascinating exploration of prejudiced versus open-minded reactions to a marginalised section of society. Elizabeth Lo is without doubt a name you’re going to be hearing much more of because she’s unbelievably talented and what she’s done with this film is genuinely incredible.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ ½

Available on BFI Player for
London Film Festival on 7th October

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