"THE STRAY" — 2 stars — Michael Cassidy, Sarah Lancaster, Connor Corum; PG (thematic elements); in general release
Only moments into “The Stray,” a lightning bolt hits the tent of its unsuspecting occupants in the Colorado wilderness. It’s a dramatic start for a film that means well, but can’t quite make its pieces fit the story it wants to tell.
Mitch Davis’ “The Stray” is based on the true story of how his family took in a dog during a challenging period in their lives. Michael Cassidy plays Mitch, an aspiring screenwriter who took his family to California hoping to stake out a career in Hollywood, but finds himself stuck in a well-paying but time-monopolizing job as a studio script reader instead.
The time spent away from home has put an extra strain on his wife Michelle (Sarah Lancaster) and compromised his relationship with his young son Christian (“Heaven is for Real’s” Connor Corum). So when a stray dog chases off a group of bullies at Christian’s school, then attaches himself to Mitch’s family, they name him Pluto and count him as an answer to prayer.
Pluto quickly becomes a member of the family, and even manages to locate Mitch’s 2-year-old daughter Rachel (Eliza de Azevedo Brown) one day when she wanders off into the neighborhood unattended. But in spite of the extra help, Mitch’s job proves to be too much of a burden to the family, and he and Michelle decide to relocate to Colorado.
In Colorado, Mitch starts over as a starving screenwriter, and discovers that he’s going to have to start over with Christian as well if he wants to repair the damage to their relationship. As a gesture of good faith, Mitch organizes a backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains along with a couple of other boys Christian’s age, but an unexpected electrical storm leads to the moment that defines the film.
There’s a kind message at the heart of “The Stray,” but at times it feels like Davis is trying to force two stories together that aren’t quite a natural fit. The heart of the film is a father’s struggle to figure out how best to serve and love his family, and the moments that focus on this narrative provide the film’s greatest strength. Mitch may be trying to realize his dreams as a Hollywood screenwriter, but his situation should be relatable to any father who has had to weigh his career decisions against his family’s well-being.
The problem is that “The Stray” is intent on making Pluto the emotional heart of the story, when often his involvement feels more incidental. This is especially apparent in the third act of the film — which won’t be spoiled here — where the sobering aftermath of the lightning bolt feels emotionally misdirected.
Cassidy’s work — especially in that third act — is an anchor to the film, and fans of TV’s “Chuck” will enjoy seeing Lancaster provide her own anchor for the Davis family. No doubt families and dog lovers especially will find elements of “The Stray” charming and relatable, even noble, but as a whole, the film’s focus feels too off-center to hit its intended target.
"The Stray" is rated PG for thematic elements; running time: 92 minutes.