Chasing your dreams is fine and all, but a funny thing can happen along the way: When you catch ’em, they sometimes don’t look anything like you imagined.
A while back, Mitch and Michelle Davis dropped everything to move to Los Angeles, so Mitch could go to the University of Southern California’s prestigious film school and learn to be a screenwriter. Alas, successful screenwriters are as rare in L.A. as Burbank glaciers, so he switched tracks: Instead of sending his own writing to a callous movie executive to rip apart, he becomes a callous movie executive himself. And in so doing, he achieves something that eludes most writers: a regular paycheck.
“We came, we saw, we conquered!” he tells Michelle. All their sacrifices and hard work have paid off, and they’re living the dream. Except that, given Mitch’s insane, dawn-to-dawn workdays, he doesn’t actually have a lot of time to dream anymore. Or spend time with his kids. Or do most of the things that regular people enjoy doing.
When Mitch apologizes to his son, Christian, for missing his latest baseball game, the 9-year-old boy isn’t having it. “You’re always sorry because you’re never there,” Christian accuses. Mitch knows he’s right.
But then they find a stray dog, and everything changes.
First, the dog protects Christian from a couple of rampaging bullies. Christian ties it up to make sure it doesn’t run away. Alas, it does … but it goes right to Christian’s bus stop! (Nifty trick, that.) Then, when Mitch’s toddler decides to walk out of the house, the dog helps reconnect the tot with a very worried Mitch. The episode convinces him (Mitch, not the dog or tot) that maybe California dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So he packs up the family and moves to the mountains of Colorado.
The dog comes too, of course: By now, it’s not just a random, preternaturally observant stray, but Pluto the Wonder Dog, a treasured part of the family.
But while Pluto is beloved by all in the Davis family, Mitch … not so much. Those years of 20-hour days have taken a toll on him and his relationships, especially with Christian—so much so that Mitch feels the need to engage in some heavy-duty father-son time. Knowing that Christian’s still having a hard time connecting with kids his own age, Mitch invites a couple of boys along for an adventure.
Pluto gets to come along too, naturally. Couldn’t leave him behind, right?
Despite this movie’s title, The Stray isn’t really much about Pluto. While the dog may be the catalyst for the story’s plot, it’s really about family and values—and what happens to the former when the latter’s out of kilter. When we “stray” from them, you might say.
Mitch isn’t a bad person when he and Michelle are trying to make a life in California, but he is a bad father. When Christian asks his pops for a few baseball pointers, Mitch begs off, citing his crazy workload. Mitch is talking on the phone when his youngest little daughter wanders away, too absorbed in work to notice a toddler wandering out the door.
To his credit, his daughter’s near-departure is a serious wake-up call: He sacrifices his promising career and makes his family his highest priority, with the move to the relative backwoods of Colorado serving as a statement of those values. His heart’s in the right place now.
But things don’t instantly change just because a parent chooses to reprioritize. Christian’s suffered years of relative neglect, and he’s at the age at which you don’t necessarily just forgive and forget your parents’ sins. Christian punishes Mitch—withholding his love just as Mitch withheld his time.
But The Stray also tells us that, no matter how frayed the familial bonds might be, we still can hope for redemption and reconciliation. Mitch doesn’t stop trying to connect with his son. Eventually, he’s successful in patching up his relationship with the boy—thanks to a camping trip, Pluto and a literal bolt from the sky.
The Stray is a faith-based film, and the Davis family is a Christian one. We see several instances of prayer: Mitch tells daughter Rachel that, if she wants a dog, she should pray for a stray pooch to come into their lives—a prayer that’s obviously granted. When the toddler wanders off, Michelle tells Rachel that they’ll pray fervently for her return—another answered prayer. And when Mitch and Christian go on their camping trip, Rachel and Michelle pray for their safety. “You pray for us, and we’ll pray for you, and that way we’ll all be protected,” Mitch tells her. During that camping trip in the mountains, the guys offer up far more fervent, frantic prayers during a dangerous, stormy night. And during a funeral, several members of the Davis family say a few prayerful words of remembrance.
As Mitch, Christian and the boy’s friends head up to the mountains, Mitch plays some music from 1970s folk singer Cat Stevens. As it plays, Mitch tells the boys about a critical moment in the singer’s life. During a party, drunk and stoned, Stevens nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu. As he struggled for life, he prayed to God, promising that if he survived the night, he’d work for God thereafter. (Mitch doesn’t mention that Stevens converted to Islam.)
In his job as a movie executive, Mitch tells his boss that he doesn’t believe the actress Julia Roberts would be a believable prostitute—a sly wink to Roberts’ star-defining role in Pretty Woman. Clark, one of the boys on the camping trip, tells Mitch about his love of Baywatch, referencing famously buxom Pamela Anderson. “She saved my life,” he says.
Mitch and Michelle kiss a couple of times.
[Spoiler Warning] A lightning bolt strikes Mitch’s tent as he and the boys camp: The current goes through everyone, knocking everyone over and rendering one of the boys temporarily unconscious. But Mitch and Pluto take the brunt of the electrical blast: Mitch is temporarily paralyzed, and the boys worry for a while that he might be dead. Blood runs from his ear. And when Mitch takes off his shirt, we also see a nasty-looking wound near his heart and scorch marks across his torso and one of his arms. Pluto, meanwhile, dies in the catastrophe.
Someone ties Christian’s shoes together, and he falls down while riding the bus. Bullies harass Christian elsewhere, too—until they’re attacked by Pluto. When the Davises first move to Colorado, a neighboring rancher warns Mitch that if he catches Pluto in with his sheep, he’ll “shoot him dead. And then I’ll feed him to my cats.” A bear threatens the guys’ campsite.
We hear one use of “crap,” and Mitch almost seems to say “b–tard” before his wife checks him. We also hear people say “sucks.” An adolescent exclaims, “Over that hill my butt.”
Mitch tries hard to sell the camping trip to Christian, saying that one of its many advantages is that “you can poop outside.” Clark, when knocked out by a lightning blast, defecates in his pants, which Mitch calls a “meadow muffin.” Later, they joke that he’s about to make another. Mitch tells kids a rude (but essentially inoffensive) joke.
Most families have their share of favorite stories. Like a pair of jeans, a family’s lore only seems to get better with time and wear. Naturally, these stories are told and retold: We laugh about them over dinner, cry about them over coffee. We tell them anew to kids and grandkids and close family friends over dusty photo albums or old family movies.
But we don’t all get a chance, like the real Mitch Davis does, to share our most dramatic stories with complete strangers.
The Davis family really did find a remarkable stray pooch that they named Pluto the Wonder Dog. They really did pick up and move from California to Colorado. And Davis really was struck by lightning: He still has some lingering damage in his ear because of it.
For years, they kept this remarkable story to themselves. But when Parker Davis, Mitch’s youngest son, decided to write a screenplay about this fabled family tale, Mitch volunteered to help. And then he decided to direct and produce the resulting movie, too. Most of the family chipped in to help. The making of The Stray really was a family affair.
All family stories probably suffer a bit when told to a wider audience. The Stray, like those funny tales told by a favorite uncle, lacks a tight narrative structure: It meanders a bit, and Pluto—despite the name of the movie—can actually feel a little ancillary. And like many a true story, this one can feel almost unbelievable: “Lightning and a bear? Really?” But sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction.
Setting those narrative weaknesses aside, you can see the love and craftsmanship that went into this movie. It’s funny and sweet and, at times, surprisingly affecting. Davis, a veteran Hollywood director, knows his stuff. The main actors here know theirs, too. The result? The Stray is a personal story professionally told, a Christian film that incorporates faith without pulling out a Bible and thwacking viewers with it.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.