It becomes obvious why the platinum blonde wigs don’t sit well atop the heads of Riz (Geetanjali Thapa) and Dallas (Olivia DeJonge) in the opening scene of “Stray Dolls,” Sonejuhi Sinha’s barnburner of a feature debut set in a world where there’s nothing left but ashy embers. You wouldn’t know it from the way Riz describes to her mother her new gig at the Tides Plaza Motel in upstate New York, saying “you can see the mountains just like at home” after assuring her she’s reached the land of opportunity, but as she looks upon the single-story track of dilapidated rooms in front of her from a payphone booth with nothing on the horizon to speak of, you realize America is hardly what she was promised on her treacherous trip from India and the brilliant twist early on in Sinha and Charlotte Rabate’s script is suggesting that it never was that either for Dallas, a young woman privileged at birth with white skin and U.S. citizenship, yet has suffered at the hands of an unfair social order where the right look can often cover up for a multitude of sins.
Riz and Dallas have gotten savvy to that last part — despite the wigs being an unconvincing disguise for a robbery, they know how to hide their bad deeds throughout “Stray Dolls” and it’s a fitting characteristic for Sinha’s contemporary spin on film noir that’s darker than most of the black-and-white classics of the genre. Before they become literally thick as thieves, the two women find themselves unwittingly paired as roomies at the motel by its manager Una (Cynthia Nixon), who assures the newly arrived Riz that she runs an honest establishment upon hiring her as a new housekeeper, but is disproven less than a few hours later when Dallas arrives with keys to the room Riz thought she had to herself and holds her up at knifepoint while rummaging through her belongings.
As bold as Sinha’s color choices are at every turn, illuminating the many nighttime scenes with cool neon highlights, her choices as a storyteller are even bigger flexes, starting with the deal Riz strikes with Dallas to get her things back by pilfering from others while making her rounds. When Riz stumbles upon a score that could actually get both out of their current dead-end predicament, the duo realize a common cause, which leads to other epiphanies about what mutual feelings they have. While the characters have a low tolerance for BS, there’s a refreshingly no-nonsense approach to plotting that cultivates a sense of surprise even when the future appears to be so inevitably bleak for Riz and Dallas. However, when the off-screen knowledge of what fate surely has in store for them based on their social standing is rendered as vividly as it is in “Stray Dolls” without ever being heavy-handed, it is galvanizing to watch the pair take control of their destiny with brute force and sharp wits, breaking free of the system at least in their own mind, no matter what happens in reality.