Less a straightforward narrative than a lyrical tone-poem, Kiwi filmmaker Dustin Feneley's self-funded debut feature is a strong contender for the best film to come out of New Zealand this year.
Off the back of a remarkable genesis - eight years trapped in development before a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign - Stray is a breath of fresh, freezing mountain air.
It's hard not to get excited about a film with such potential to be a bellwether in the way we think about and, significantly, make films in New Zealand. Feneley's direction is uncompromising in its control, subtlety and precision - reflecting a project that, even in the bleakest and most difficult of financial circumstances, refused to compromise. Stray has a desire to really push a cinematic vision beyond what is simply the easiest sell.
The film itself, lamentably doomed to be dismissed by some as slow or ambiguous, is a sparse, rural South Island-set story of an ex-con (played with wounded, masculine vulnerability by Kieran Charnock) attempting to outrun a violent past. Eventually, he bonds with another "stray", a woman (Arta Dobroshi, in an expressive, often silent turn) recently released from an extended stay at a psychiatric hospital. Both are at an extreme remove from the rest of society because of their circumstances and, to a degree, by choice.
Fittingly for a film about such consuming, painful loneliness, it takes place in long, quiet, measured takes, often locked in still, gorgeous frames. The combined effect creates an alien world out of the well-worn landscapes of the Southern Alps.
The result is something new, compelling and haunting. Its intricate design and measured pace draw you into a tense, hypnotic spell broken only by the catharsis of finding the human elements in a world that has abandoned its characters.
It is an iceberg of a film - what appears above the surface barely scratches at the behemoth of emotion lurking within. That the film exists in this state at all is astonishing - that it is this damn good might just be a miracle.
Arta Dobroshi, Kieran Charnock
M (Adult Themes)
A chilly, uncompromising classic.