Directed by Aaron Dunleavy
Cinematography by Christopher Spurdens
Short Film Review by Euan Franklin
It’s a nightmarish idea: what if the children reigned? What if they overthrew the oppressive grown-ups and started a new society, one that is true to their primal instincts? After successfully delving into Northern social realism with The Truants and Throw Me to the Dogs, also starring unruly children, writer-director Aaron Dunleavy moves into post-apocalyptic territory with Strays.
The film opens with children throwing stones at an adult in chains. Cut to two kids trapping a bird to eat. Then cut to a group of boys queue to have sex with a young girl. Strays, only three-and-a-half minutes in length, continues in this approach: harrowing images showing the downfall of a parentless dystopia. There is no one story, only a glimpse into a bleak future.
The film has poetry rather than plot – pursuing a stream-of-consciousness rhythm instead of a story-driven narrative. Alike to Dunleavy’s previous shorts, Strays tells us how violent kids can be. Without the order and empathy instilled by their parents, children return to their animalistic urges. It’s something many don’t like to think about – children are often held up as the prime example of innocence. How could something so young and so small be capable of such evil? It’s a fear that’s been a part of British culture since The Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. What if children were left to fend for themselves in a lawless society? Despite the short length, Dunleavy poses these questions with a gloomy confidence – remarkable for a director just out of film school.
However, the film’s poetic plotlessness doesn’t always work. We’re only given a montage of snapshots without a narrative thread to tie them up. The world is not as engaging as it could’ve been and it’s a wonder why Dunleavy didn’t pursue a similar route to his other shorts. As with Strays, they also follow children in a distressing environment - showing their mettle in whatever way possible. But The Truants and Throw Me to the Dogs have a depth of humanity and character, similar to Shane Meadows in its execution. Surely a post-apocalyptic setting would encourage a similar story to take place?
Christopher Spurdens’ cinematography is beautifully dirty. The visuals create a sordid atmosphere of a world where emotion is a hindrance rather than a moral necessity. If anything supports Dunleavy to structure a short film in such a scattered way, it is the meticulous craftsmanship of every little scene. Its brevity has allowed him and Spurdens the freedom to shoot with a gritty precision as well as draw out haunting performances from the child actors. The images reminded me of Colin Watkinson’s work on The Handmaid’s Tale in its sombre depictions of a dismantled society – and I wouldn’t be surprised if, later in his career, Spurdens were to match his style.
Strays feels like an arresting experiment, testing the waters of an underdeveloped idea. Dunleavy has created a frightening world with primitive, parentless youngsters who have thrown away all sense of morality – echoing the evil children in Narciso Serrador’s horror film Who Can Kill A Child? The lack of story in Strays puts off another viewing, but I’m hanging on to the possibility that it’s a prologue to a bigger project – one closer to the coexistent cruelty and humanity shown in his earlier films. I look forward to it. Let’s hope the kids don’t get any ideas in the meantime.