The Minneapolis Somali actors who delivered standout performances as marauding pirates beside Tom Hanks in 2013’s “Captain Phillips” are talents well worth continuing to watch.
Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi co-starred with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman as a CIA agent in Kenya for “Eye in the Sky” and has joined Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford for next year’s untitled sequel to “Blade Runner.” On a smaller scale but deserving attention, “A Stray” delivers a full-scale starring role for Barkhad Abdirahman, and a strong supporting part for Faysal Ahmed, which they play with impressive skill.
Writer/director Musa Syeed’s perceptive film creates intense empathy for the city’s West Bank Somali community. Abdirahman delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Adan, a young immigrant who feels unwelcome in every direction he turns. He’s been kicked out of his mom’s apartment after some of her cash and jewelry vanished. His boyhood pal (Ahmed), who has been providing Adan room in his pad, ejects him after a fracas with other buddies. The mosque provides him with overnight shelter in exchange for cleaning duties, a charity arrangement neither side desires to cling to long term. Adan doesn’t deliberately create problems, but he’s troublesome all the same.
His situation seems to improve when a restaurant owner offers him a job driving deliveries around town. But while on his route, he hits a collarless dog. A vet declares it mildly bruised, but Adan feels too guilty to leave it at the city pound en route to euthanasia. Though Muslims widely consider canines unclean, he gives the endearing underdog pooch baths, food and water, creating a bond with his one and only companion that he can’t deny. Each adopts the other.
The story travels through the political concerns in Adan’s life without turning melodramatic. An FBI agent (Christina Baldwin, as outstanding here as she was in the north country fright fest “I Am Not a Serial Killer”) views him as a valuable informant to spot possible threats, offering him the kind of housing and income that’s all but impossible to find. Glimpses of TV news reports and conversations with Native American residents demonstrate how broadly immigrant issues reach.
Abdirahman brings Adan to life with a magnetic camera presence and the rare gift of performing without seeming to act. Syeed handles the summertime views of the city with subtle honesty, capturing a location that’s relatively safe but largely anonymous and unwelcoming. He understands that exhaustively telling a story is less effective than subtly showing it unfold. This a small, spare 82-minute story, but a touching one.
(Filmmaker Musa Syeed will hold audience Q&A sessions for the 4:20 and 9:45 p.m. screenings Saturday.)