The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Stray

It's probably not a good idea for a filmmaker to tell his own story onscreen. There's too much personal attachment, whereas good storytelling needs a sense of perspective. It becomes easy to focus on the things that mean the most to you, which may not necessarily be good for the movie as a whole. Nonetheless, this is exactly what Mitch Davis has done. The former Disney executive has written and directed The Stray, based on a real incident from his life. The tale is clearly of great value to him. His telling of it, however, is almost laughably wrong-headed.

Michael Cassidy plays Mitch, a wannabe screenwriter who has instead become a Hollywood studio suit. (The movie is set in 1991. One scene finds him arguing that Julia Roberts shouldn't be cast in Pretty Woman, a film that came out in 1990. So much for accuracy.) He works long hours that cause him to miss out on time with his family, much to the dismay of wife Michelle (Sarah Lancaster) and nine-year-old son Christian (Connor Corum). One day, a stray dog shows up, and the family takes it in. The animal proves to be a blessing, providing friendship to Christian, helping Mitch and Michelle repair their marriage, and protecting the couple's toddler daughter when she becomes lost. In an effort to be a better dad, Mitch decides to take Christian, two of his friends, and the dog – whom they name Pluto – camping in the mountains.

The Stray is a very bizarre movie. Without venturing into spoiler territory, something significant and miraculous happens during the camping trip. The story is, for all intents and purposes, over at this point, yet the film drags on for another forty minutes anyway. Davis focuses on depicting pointless details, like the drive home, Mitch dropping the other kids off at their houses, and him telling Michelle about what happened. Instead of moving forward, the movie holds you in the moment right after the event occurs, forcing you to dwell on it for the duration of the running time. The filmmaker apparently believes there's something inspirational in the approach. There isn't. Stories need to remain in motion to keep an audience's interest. The Stray gets so far, then stays in a holding pattern for nearly half its running time.

This is a faith-based film – one that soft-sells the message in a bid for mainstream appeal. The family talks about their faith and we hear them mention praying a couple of times. Beyond that, you're supposed to read into things, namely that Pluto has been sent by God to heal this family. Some merit exists in that concept, yet Davis' dialogue and sense of plotting are so relentlessly earnest that the entire enterprise comes off as corny. In fact, the desire to tug at your heartstrings starts to feel desperate after a while. The Stray doesn't just want to make you cry, it wants to reach right into your eye sockets and squeeze your tear ducts until there's not an ounce of moisture left.

Severely limiting its goal of being touching is that there just aren't enough scenes showing the family bonding with the dog. Pluto shows up, instantly performs a couple little miracles, and then the camping incident takes place. We are supposed to walk away affected by how intense the bond is between the pooch and its owners. Because we don't get enough “little” moments showing how that bond forms, the message's intended impact is blunted.

Sarah Lancaster gives a very good performance as Michelle, and Pluto is certainly cute. Those are about the only things The Stray has working in its favor. Someone else should have written and directed the film. Davis is too attached to his own perception of the inspiring event, causing him to lose sight of how to make it compelling for an audience. The result is a movie that hits a big second-act moment, then stops right there, never bothering to deliver the all-important third act.

Audiences looking for a story of faith may find The Stray lacking. And dog lovers? There's a very good chance they're going to be let down, as well.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Stray is rated PG for thematic elements including a perilous situation. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

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