Though amiable and intermittently engaging, “Strays,” Vin Diesel’s feature directorial debut, is a derivative film, a “hanging-out” yarn that charts the familiar territory of such American movies as “Mean Streets,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Diner.” Marred by Diesel’s narcissistic central performance and amateurish thesping from the rest of the cast, pic may still warrant a limited theatrical release in major cities as a showcase for a filmmaker who directs with more dexterity than he writes or acts.
“Strays” explores male camaraderie and the price one pays for belonging to a closely knit group of losers. The leader of a wild bunch of youngsters, Rick (Diesel) is a bright, handsome man who can’t tear himself from his buddies, a group of harmless comrades who lack focus and ambition. Rick serves as big brother to the clueless Fred (Joey Dedio) and a source of drugs for his other friends Rodney (T.K. Kirkland), Mike (Mike Epps) and Tony (F. Valentino Morales).
Rick’s friends are using his Lower East Side apartment for their sexual escapades with hookers and strippers. In the opening, rather charming sequence, one by one they arrive at Rick’s flat, only to find that the one bed is already occupied. Always on the lookout for quick sex and small-time adventures, they’re basically young men afraid to grow up and face the harsh reality outside Rick’s shelter.
In contrast, tired of one-night stands and impersonal sex, Rick struggles to become a responsible man, but he’s consistently dragged down by his chums. Things change when he meets Heather (Suzanne Lanza), a gentle, beautiful woman who apparently comes from a different social milieu.
Switching gears from the cinema verite style that characterizes the first part of the picture, second half turns into a most conventional romance, reminiscent of the central love story in “Saturday Night Fever”: sporadic dates, passionate sex, misunderstandings and reconciliations. In his scenes with Heather, Rick reveals his tormented identity, torn between his macho bravado and street-smart sensibility and a more hidden kindness and generosity of spirit. The narrative’s few novel dimensions concern racial prejudice, as Rick’s clique is multicultural, going beyond the Italian-American contingency that prevails in earlier American movies.
Regrettably, like many other first-time efforts, with all the exterior roughness and edge of “Strays,” deep inside the movie lies a rather conventional , earnest and soft story about misunderstood men who are products of broken families (hence the title) and the harsh circumstances of a working-class life.
Helmer Diesel shows a keen eye for the mobile camera and style of pic’s early sequences is spontaneous and realistic as befits the material. For a while, the approach succeeds in disguising the routine narrative. Nonetheless, once Rick and Heather’s relationship takes center stage, dwelling on their problems with their respective families (she has a “secret” child; he’s alienated from his mom), “Strays” assumes a sentimental mode, containing quite a few moralistic speeches. Rick’s big scene, in which he tries once and for all to break away from his pals, is particularly poorly scripted and executed.
It’s hard to gauge Diesel’s acting talents, for his performance here consists of a series of attitudes and postures, flaunting his impressive basso voice and muscled body in tight outfits. As Heather, Lanza looks and moves like a model, which indeed is her previous career track. Rest of the ensemble also lacks distinction.
As he demonstrated in his striking short “Multi-Facial,” which was shown in Cannes, Diesel is a potentially gifted filmmaker, one particularly adroit in establishing an authentic sense of time and place. In evoking a credible mood for “Strays,” Diesel is greatly assisted by his lenser, Andrew Dunn, who fills the screen with exciting compositions that reflect the changing psychological dynamics of Rick’s circle of friends.