Sometimes a film contains a single scene that feels like its main reason for being. In Sonejuhi Sinha’s grimy-glamorous crime thriller feature debut “Stray Dolls,” it comes late on: Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a newly arrived undocumented immigrant from India who is working as a maid in a dead-end motel, is in a phone booth at night talking to her mom back home. “Yes I’m fine,” she natters brightly in Nepali. “I’ve just been for a swim. There’s a pool. It’s shaped like a, like a…” she tries to remember the word, waving the gun in her blood-spattered hand around in a squiggle, “…kidney bean.” Needless to say, there is no pool, she is not fine and those are the very least of her lies.
As that image suggests, “Stray Dolls” is a genre picture with a twist, although the immigrant experience subtext is undernourished within a plot that otherwise hews a little too closely to the conventions of the motel noir. Riz has been put to work by motel owner Una (Cynthia Nixon), who has her bunk in with Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), a vicious petty grifter with a drug habit, whose first action is to steal some of Riz’s meager belongings and hold them for ransom. To get them back, Riz picks the lock on a guest’s suitcase and discovers a satisfyingly hefty brick-shaped package of cocaine, which she passes on to Dallas. An uneasy alliance, shot through with gay attraction between the two, is born, though quite why Riz, seemingly bright and certainly in possession of a ruthless survival instinct, might think this will be an uncomplicated transaction is one of the films unintentional mysteries.
Dallas entrusts the selling of the coke to her shiftless, lizard-brained sorta-boyfriend Jimmy (Rob Aramayo), who is also Una’s son, and who lives on the premises because his mother has clearly never seen “Psycho.” But then Una is herself a nasty bit of work: She shreds Riz’s passport under guise of “safekeeping” and roundly murders Fleetwood Mac during one of her regular karaoke nights. “I got a big heart!” she tells Riz, serrating the “h” in the plausibly inconsistent accent of the longtime Eastern European emigre, but like anyone who has ever claimed as much out loud, she does not.
Sinha does not push the stylization as far as, say, Aaron Katz’s “Gemini,” with which “Stray Dolls” shares a certain kinship. But Shane Sigler’s nighttime cinematography is slickly seedy throughout, reveling in the chemical yellows of buzzing sodium lights and the hot pinks of reflected neon. The very sparing use of score adds a nervy groundedness to the devolving series of thefts, murders, betrayals and drugged-out sex scenes that follow inexorably on from Riz’s first crime, while the piquant use of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning” strikes the ideal tone of sinister, doomed romance.
For their buddy-dynamic to work, the two actresses have to bring a lot more than is on the rather sparsely underwritten page. But they do a fine job of rubbing the circulation back into characters that could otherwise simply be the inert sum total of their desperations, and they infuse a lovely offbeat chemistry into the scrappy, “Thelma and Louise” arc of their relationship. Thapa’s angelic face suggests an innocence and openness that is a useful mask for Riz, while De Jonge’s brittle worldliness makes Dallas Riz’s inverse: hard on the outside to conceal a core of hurt, neglect and vulnerability. By contrast, Nixon feels oddly stunt-cast as Una and never quite settles into the film’s landscape. But then Sinha and co-writer Charlotte Rabate’s script doesn’t give her much to work with, and tends to flail when not focused directly on the central pair and their “Bonnie and Bonnie” vibe.
The screenplay’s shortcomings, such as the literal signposting of Niagara Falls as a so-near-yet-so-faraway place of escape (it culminates in an actual signpost), are a pity, because Sinha has a sense of location and an eye for the skewering detail that she could have trusted more. Small flourishes speak volumes about these ragged lives in this no-hoper place: the John Paul II picture in the reception; the Dolly Parton portrait in Dallas’ room; even the minor revelation, delivered laconically, that the most glamorous thing about Dallas — the story of her name — is also basically a fantasy. The downbeat, disenfranchised “dark side of the American dream” thing has been done to death in a thousand noirs, but “Stray Dolls” elbows just enough room for itself in that crowded category, especially for how it honors the American cinematic tradition of the last-chance motel: a place designed for passing through that somehow never lets you leave.