Stray fortifies hope in the breadth and ambition of New Zealand film

Rating: ★★★★★

With an unmatched synthesis of attentive direction and rigorous aesthetic intent, Stray fortifies hope in the breadth and ambition of New Zealand film. Set during a permeating southern winter, the film follows tortured strangers Jack (Kiernan Charnock) and Grace (Arta Dobroshi) recalibrating their lives in the mountains of remote Central Otago. In this exquisite debut from writer/director Dustin Feneley, the two find themselves in a charged, intricate intimacy.

It’s terrifically bracing to watch a character study that doesn’t patronise its audience. With a textural pacing at times vaguely reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Stray renders the meticulous details of relentless isolation. In one scene, Jack grimaces as he runs water over a wound on his palm, then patches himself up. Is there anything more stupidly lonely than injuring yourself when no one else is around? Later, when Grace first stays the night, Jack makes up a bed for her, tenderly laying a sheet on the mattress; a small yet momentous gesture of effort and care he never afforded himself.

These poetic details are ever enriched by Sophie Durham’s expert production design and the phenomenal eye of cinematographer Ari Wegner. Natural light and soft shadows are expertly diffused to conjure winter’s aching fatigue. Fogged windows, crisp duvets, and worn leather dining chairs build on the film’s naturalistic tactility.

Carefully considering the relationship between masculinity and situation, New Zealand film history echoes throughout Stray. And yet, the perceptive contours shaped throughout the film truly do constitute a breath of fresh air.

timeout / New Zealand herald - 28 June 2018

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What's it about?

This self-funded Kiwi feature focuses on two lonely, damaged souls trying to escape their past who bond in the barren landscape of the rural South Island.

Why should you see it?

After an exceedingly lengthy process to finally get it to the big screen, which included a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign, Kiwi filmmaker Dustin Feneley's sparse arthouse drama is remarkably shot, quietly powerful and totally uncompromising in its vision. 

New Zealand INTERNATIONAL FILM FEStival - tim wong - 31 may 2018

Capturing New Zealand’s moody and majestic southern landscape with terrific clarity, Stray demands to be seen on the big screen

Two damaged strangers fall into a complex intimate relationship in Dustin Feneley’s beautiful and rigorous debut feature film, shot in Otago against the backdrop of the breathtaking Southern Alps.

One of the most strikingly photographed New Zealand films in recent memory, Stray is the statement-making feature debut of writer/director Dustin Feneley. Set in the wintry south, this bracingly spare character drama frames Aotearoa’s oft-filmed landscapes in a clear and startling new light.

Jack (Kieran Charnock, The Rehearsal), a taciturn young man on parole for grievous bodily harm, holes up in a cabin somewhere in Central Otago. It’s not clear whether he’s trying to forget the past or reconcile with it, although his hesitancy with locals suggests he’s much closer to the scene of the crime than he’d care to admit. Locked away in a prison of his own making, Jack one evening encounters Grace, very far from home and seeking refuge. Played by the captivating Arta Dobroshi, star of the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence, Grace’s own private struggles linger beneath her attraction to Jack. These lonely, enigmatic strangers drift into a relationship that promises to either heal or hurt.

There’s a deliberate – in the context of the short history of our national cinema even daring – aesthetic discipline to this film, whose suppressed emotions lend greater power to its visuals. Ari Wegner, the talented DP behind Lady Macbeth’s intense painterly compositions, does astonishing things with darkness and diffused natural light. Within these stunning images, the Man Alone tradition is alive and well, but it’s also crisply refocused through Feneley’s commitment to stark silences and bold cinematic spaces into a kind of hard-edged New Zealand poetry.