A temporarily homeless young Somalian refugee man and an abandoned mutt both fit the title description in “A Stray,” Musa Syeed’s sophomore feature. Like his first film, the 2012 Sundance-premiered “Valley of Saints,” this slice-of-life miniature trades in effective, mostly non-pro performances, low-key drama and empathy toward cultural outsiders. The non-sensational light thrown on U.S. Muslim communities might give a leg up to what’s primarily a festival item, with modest specialty home-format prospects.
Crashing with a mate after being thrown out of his mother’s apartment in the same building, Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman, “Captain Phillips”) childishly overreacts to a petty dispute, and decides to scram rather than face the angry consequences. With nowhere else to go — he’s apparently burned all his other bridges — he wanders the Minneapolis streets, sleeping where he can. (Mercifully, it’s not winter yet.)
When he’s found loitering at a neighborhood mosque, the imam perceives his plight and kindly lets him stay in exchange for some basic custodial work. He’s grateful to be there, as he perceives the outside world as full of temptations that experience has proven him too weak to resist. Thus he’s reluctant to leave this physical and spiritual shelter, even for the restaurant next door when its owner prods him into working there rather than continue to accept charity.
Making a food delivery by car one day, Adan distractedly hits a dog running loose. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking it to the vet (where it turns out to be unharmed), but refuses to assume responsibility for the canine, leaving Adan stuck with an animal he’s not only ill equipped to care for, but which is considered unclean by his religion’s laws. He promptly loses his new employment and roof as a result, landing again on the streets. For a while, his best hope of getting back on his feet is an unpleasant prospect: Cooperating with an FBI agent who wants to use him as an informant sniffing out any potential terrorist activity in the local Muslim communities.
Aware of his own faults but easily angered, irksome and unfocused nonetheless, Adan has a lot of self-improvements to make. There’s nothing very surprising about the way Syeed uses this character’s forced care of a scurfy hound to underline his own underdog status, or to prod him into a gradually kinder/gentler attitude toward other beings and himself. But the writer-director’s seemingly random yet never aimless narrative avoids predictable sentimental notes as well as any explicit backstory, leaving us to fill in the blanks. (An occasional overheard TV or radio report reminds that the world is undergoing a refugee crisis on several fronts.) The result is modest, but has an earned emotional payoff.
The crisply shot and edited pic captures a side of the Twin Cities many locals might not recognize, as it reflects the particular business and social milieu of Muslim African expats. (The area boasts the single greatest concentration of Somalian refugees outside Africa at present.) Yoni Brooke’s lensing and an African roots-music-flavored score highlight flavorful assembly.