‘We Strangers’ Review: A Grifting Medium Gets Her Bag in a Wry Indictment of Our Unserious World

It’s hard to imagine the Gary, Indiana janitorial community having many savvier political operators than Ray Martin (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). The commercial custodian knows that she’s every bit as smart as the people whose messes she spends her days cleaning up, but she takes bits of joy in adapting to whatever environment she ends up being thrust into. But at the start of “We Strangers,” Anu Valia’s feature directorial debut that seems destined to be one of the breakout hits of SXSW 2024, she finds herself in a puzzling situation that even she can’t quite wrap her mind around.

In the middle of one of her shifts cleaning the office of Dr. Neeraj Patel (Hari Dhillon), the wealthy therapist propositions her to become his personal housekeeper. It’s not immediately clear why he took an interest in her, but she accepts the curious gig with the hope of making a little extra money. As she enters his palatial home, the vibes are so rancid that it almost seems like the beginning of some “Get Out”-style horror story. But Valia takes the story in a more benign but equally strange direction, placing Ray in the center of an unfunny comedy of manners where navigating the neuroses of her rich patrons is more challenging than any amount of cleaning. It isn’t long before Patel asks Ray to start cleaning his mistress’ (Maria Dizzia) house as well, placing her at a strange fulcrum of power between Neeraj and the two women in his life.

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It’s another simple cleaning job, but Ray is quickly distracted by the mind-numbingly stupid reality TV that her new clients obsess over. A show about psychics that makes “Long Island Medium” look like Proust by comparison catches her eye, and inexplicably prompts her to tell a white lie. Ray explains that she is also a medium with the power to contact spirits, and her new boss immediately shells out $100 for a completely bullshit psychic reading. She suddenly finds herself with an easier avenue to earn money and gather information than she’s ever had in her life — the only thing it might cost her is her soul.

“We Strangers” boasts the kind of accomplished production values rarely seen on such a small-scale directorial debut. It’s sleek without ever being slick, managing to exist within Ray’s new world of material comforts without ever becoming a product of it. Valia’s decade of directing expensive TV episodes prepared her well for the endeavor, as each frame is composed in a way that elegantly layers the film’s themes on top of each other. The lavish Patel home begins to feel like a geometric puzzle, and the very act of Ray occupying space while she cleans draws attention to the places that she is and isn’t supposed to fit into.

Kirby anchors the film with a thrillingly nuanced performance, seamlessly transitioning from a character that’s expected to be seen and not heard into someone who has the spotlight thrust upon them at the most inopportune moment. Her facial expressions reveal an emotional metronome that is constantly shifting between discomfort, Machiavellianism, and sincere guilt while trying to perform the endless balancing act that goes into her daily survival.

Valia masterfully illustrates the tensions among the complex system of social graces that fuel elite society and how utterly pointless it all seems when we stare death in the face. For all of the pleasantries that Ray exchanges with her employers, her eyes reveal the cogs constantly spinning in her head as she calculates the proper behavior to assimilate in every new circumstance. And while the unspoken expectations of her might be massive, the spoken ones are shockingly simple. All she has to do for these women is sell them some relief for their white guilt at $100 a pop. It’s understandable that she keeps waiting for an obvious catch, but the actual strings attached to the situation are far subtler.

As the film builds towards its bleak final image, the limited amount of hours in a day begins to tear Ray between the nonsensical spiritual services she provides her employers and her actual obligations to her real family. The age old “family vs. career” predicament is nothing new, but Valia’s detached gaze highlights the utter ridiculousness of Ray’s situation and, by extension, our world. The film’s thesis is clear: Those with the luxury of free time might obsess over the minutia of 21st century society as a means of assuaging their existential dread, but it’s a cheap bandage that will never shield us from the entropy and destruction that the universe is inevitably sending our way.

Grade: A-

“We Strangers” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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