Indie crime/thriller squanders cast talents

“Stray Dolls” is like a Harmony Korine movie with all the fun and energy drained out of it. All that’s left is the dour, mean-spirited stuff that gives Korine’s work it’s importance but alone doesn’t make for good cinema. And while first-time feature filmmaker Sonejuhi Sinha gets a quality central performance from Geentanjali Thapa, the surrounding components never rise to the occasion.

When Riz (Thapa) lands in American from India, she’s rudely greeted by Una (Cynthia Nixon doing a Russian or Ukrainian accent). Una runs a dingy motel and fancies the establishment a refuge for the downtrodden. She even playfully suggests to Riz that if she works hard, one day she might run the place. Naturally, such words of encouragement do not leave a positive impression.

Reluctant roommates become partners in crime.

Una puts Riz in a room with another young girl named Dallas (Olivia DeJonge, attempting the type of role that was perfected by Taryn Manning). Initially, Dallas terrorizes her new roommate, but the animosity thaws between them when Riz steals a brick of cocaine from another motel resident. Just what to do next with the drugs is the question.

The narrative unfolds almost entirely at the rundown motel. It’s a location we’ve seen in other films. Rooms are inhabited by transient souls just trying to find their place in the world. But “Stray Dolls” isn’t interested in that story. Instead, the movie focuses on a conventional, lurid crime thriller. And as far as those elements are concerned, it never goes far enough.

Riz is an intriguing character. And even though some of her back-story is revealed as she shares with Dallas, I never got the impression that the stories she told were truthful. Perhaps, the mystery is intended, but I found the inconsistencies frustrating.

At times, Riz telephones her family back home in India. During these conversations, she becomes a completely different person than we met before. The drug use and sex in the film seem manufactured and insincere. And the limited action sequences are sloppy and unconvincing.

Cynthia Nixon as Una.

Nixon, though, has fun with Una. She has a scene where she does a little bad karaoke, a sad ritual that could have provided Sinha with a “Blue Velvet” moment. Una’s son, Jimmy, is played by Robert Aramayo, who reminded me of Charlie Tahan in his “Ozark” role. He and Nixon make a believable mother and son pairing.

As a first feature, it is understandable that a director would lean into familiar territory, hoping to transcend the genre if only a little bit. And finding money for this project probably required inclusion of the more lurid scenes involving murder, drug use, and sex. These things sell, I suppose. But, sadly, the best parts of the film are the moments when Riz chats with her family on the phone. These sequences are the movie’s most authentic.

While watching “Stray Dolls,” I found myself thinking about the Apple TV+ show “Little America” and, naturally, Sean Baker’s marvelous “The Florida Project.” The short format of “Little America” would have been great for the characters in “Stray Dolls.” And had Sinha trusted in Riz’s story, she could have explored the more realistic struggles of a young person marooned in a foreign country. But what we get is another violent tale of drug dealers, stolen merchandise, and petty crime. These are things we’ve seen before in much better movies.