The Strays is a psychological thriller movie released on Netflix in 2023. Directed by Nathaniel Martello-White as his debut as a director, the film hides several interesting meanings, and the plot shows an evolution that no one expects. After watching it, it comes natural to the viewer to wish for a deeper analysis of the ending, the movie’s meaning, and its hidden message. In this article we will have all answers, explained.
You can watch the official trailer for The Strays here on Youtube.
The Strays: the plot explained
The opening sequence of The Strays sets the context and helps us understand almost everything about the protagonist’s psychology, Cheryl. We see her talking on the phone with her sister, expressing all her frustration for her life. He feels suffocated by her existence; she feels she deserves more. And she believes nothing is wrong with wanting more for your life. So far, her thoughts seem very reasonable to the viewer: when we feel our life is becoming a cage and it’s suppressing our ambitions, dreams, and needs, we naturally tend to react, make a decision, and adopt some significant changes.
We soon discover the nature of Cheryl’s changes: she leaves a note on the fridge saying she’s “popping to the hairdresser,” and we understand that she’s leaving someone who won’t expect it. We hear her man’s voice asking through the voicemail to pick up the phone. We see bills to be paid and a video game console in the house. All hints lead to a conclusion: a family is living there. Maybe not a healthy one, as her sister’s words prove, and as the black belt hanging at the door makes us think. But it’s a family, and she decided to leave them behind.
“Years later,” we see she became Neve, a seemingly different person: an integrated member of a white community, with a husband, two children, a sort of repulsion towards the black community, and a totally new accent. She even practices it in front of the mirror, preparing her life like an acting performance. She even organizes a gala, inviting all neighbors. Her behavior is entirely different from the kind of woman she was before, making us feel she’s putting all her effort into refusing her past.
However, two black people, a boy and a girl, start appearing around her, and she is unreasonably scared by them. Until we understand that they are part of her past. The crescendo here culminates at the gala held in her garden, where the boy and the girl are present. She attacks them, screaming and accusing them of some evil plan. And their answer is the real plot twist of the movie: they scream, “Mom! Mother!” This is how The Strays has explained the strange events that have occurred so far in the plot: those boys are her children, coming from her past to meet again.
Her family is, of course, shocked. They cannot believe she is a woman capable of abandoning her children. She obviously doesn’t have a valid excuse for her behavior. She mentions her partner was a dangerous man, but this obviously doesn’t justify a mother abandoning her children. She finally says something meaningful: “I did what all men do.” This sentence gives us a new element to think about and matches her behavior towards the black community. Her subtle racism toward black people, her dedication to the image of a white, British, elegant family, and her belief that a man tends more easily to abandon a family, all this tells us something precise: Neve/Cheryl’s psychology is just based on stereotypes and follows a series of mechanisms that privilege self-defense and egocentrism; she simply behaves according to what she wants and needs in every single moment, without evaluating if that’s actually right or wrong. Her lack of moral judgment over her actions makes her act like a selfish person, capable of immoral behaviors.
This is confirmed by how she plans to settle the situation with her children Carl and Dione: she offers a 20.000£ check, hoping they will leave peacefully and work their lives out. This (predictably) triggers the children’s anger, which explodes at the ending of The Strays: let’s have it explained separately.
The ending & the meaning: what is the movie really about?
At the end of The Strays, Carl and Dione break into Cheryl’s family home and impose a spontaneous party for Dione’s birthday, at night. They flood the living room, order food and start playing Scrabble. Their behavior is aggressive, true: they don’t let anyone take the initiative or speak; Carl dominates the scene and decides how everything will happen. He even hurts Ian when he tries to show some understanding by saying a sentence that could seem insulting to the abandoned children: “I know you must be in pain.” We can have important insights from Carl’s behavior, as he’s acting following a new approach: since we never got what we naturally deserved, we will now take it by force. And the appearance of a happy family, with two other kids living a pleasant life while they had to struggle for their whole childhood, turns them into natural enemies.
Cheryl’s reaction is also full of meaning: she has some initial resistance; she asks Ian to protect them, but when she sees that nothing seems to stop Carl and Dione, she throws up on the floor. Suddenly, she’s again suffocated by her life, by the unwanted elements around her. Immediately after, she begins seconding Carl and Dione, inviting everybody to play Scrabble. She’s now again in full “Cheryl” mode: swallowing everything and acting like she’s supposed to, although she doesn’t want any of this.
The Scrabble game goes immediately south, as Carl feels disgusted by the fake appearance of a reunited family. He stands up and challenges Ian in weight lifting. The camera leaves them in the domestic gym, and the ending of The Strays develops quite quickly: Carl lets the heavy barbell fall on Ian’s chest, probably killing him. Cheryl goes searching her wallet to tip the delivery guy. When we see her at the entrance, with a jacket in her hand, watching herself in the mirror as in the opening scene, we immediately understand: Cheryl is again Cheryl. She’s again mercilessly leaving everybody, not looking behind. This is her psychology, after all: solving the problems in her life is too hard; it requires effort, planning, compromise, and evaluations of the best ways available to please everybody. Abandoning everything and starting over again is just much more manageable. It only requires her to silence the moral voice judging her behavior, but this is obviously something she finds easier to do.
The movie The Strays is about life and responsibility. It shows how normal people think and behave, adjusting their behavior as a continuous compromise among needs, wishes, ambitions, rules, responsibilities, duties, and acts of respect toward others. On the other side, we have Cheryl, acting as a person with an altered psyche: the others matter much less, and the evaluation about what’s wrong and right goes in the background. What’s left is just pursuing her ambitions, goals, and needs. And if those change over the years, there is only one thing to do: start from scratch and leave all behind. Cheryl becoming Neve is how The Strays has explained to us how people’s behavior could become evil for everybody else, if following your goals suddenly becomes your priority over others.