SXSW 2016: ‘A Stray’ is a frustrating, yet beautiful ode to the power of belief

There really is no love like the love of an animal. Unlike people, animals do not weigh the good and bad in your every action. Animals also do not consider past mistakes when considering the likely outcomes of future behavior, and they are always willing to forgive.

Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman), a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis, has nowhere to go. His mother has kicked him out, and his friends are sick of his stubborn ways. With nowhere left to turn, Adan seeks shelter at his local mosque, and it’s there that he begins to learn who he really is. Under the guidance of his god and the members of the church, Adan begins a new life away from the people and surroundings that caused him so many problems in the past. He begins to rebuild, if you will, but soon life throws Adan an unexpected curveball that once again forces change upon the young refugee.

While delivering a takeout order for work, a job that only arose because of his involvement in the mosque, Adan hits and nearly kills a dog who has no identification. Adan rushes the animal to a vet, but after learning the dog will be fine he’s faced with a choice to either the animal or leave him behind. The decision is not easy for Adan, as many Muslims—including those in his mosque—believe dogs to be unclean, but he relates to the animal’s circumstances and chooses to take him in. Adan might not have much, but whatever he has he is willing to share, and the two new friends soon forge a bond unlike anything either one has ever known.

Adults don’t always tell you this when you’re growing up, but sometimes doing what is right means facing consequences you might otherwise have been able to avoid. The presence of the dog in Adan’s life forces him to leave the warm embrace of his mosque in search of something more, and as a result Adan begins to question his own place in existence. He tells himself that God has a plan, and he holds tight to hope that better times are on the horizon, but time continues to pass without a clear solution to his problems. This leads to doubt, longing and finally, clarity.

It would be easy for A Stray to play like a commentary on the Muslim faith and the way the rules of a religion can push even the most devoted followers to question their beliefs, but instead writer/director Musa Syeed chooses to tell a far more personal and more meaningful story. The adventure of Adan is his alone, and though the film makes numerous efforts to connect philosophy and religion to his journey it never intentionally steals focus from his personal experience. This is one man’s tale of survival, plain and simple, and it works best when it doesn’t try to do more than what is absolutely necessary to tell its narrative.

The problems within the film arise as Adan returns to the streets with his new friend. As his personal problems continue to mount, Adan struggles to connect with the world around him almost as much as Syeed struggles to keep the audience engaged in his protagonist’s journey. An unimaginative conversation with strangers outlining the beliefs of Muslims in the center of the film threatens to derail the entire story, but fortunately Abdirahman’s unforgettable performance keeps you hooked. It’s on his every look and word that the film hangs, and somehow he manages to stretch the thin structure to a feature-length ending without losing viewers altogether. His talent is the true star of this film, and it’s what people will be talking about long after the credits have rolled.

A Stray probably could have made for a better short, but stretched to a runtime just shy of the 90-minute mark there is barely enough material to reach the finish line. That said, the commanding performance of Barkhad Abdirahman and the beautiful dialogue provided by Syeed makes for a unique experience that matches heart with theology without coming across as being too heavy-handed in its delivery. In a world overflowing with indie films, A Stray is utterly unique, both in the story it has to share and purpose for its existence. The film doesn’t work 100 percent of the time, but what does work will stay with you for many months to come.