‘We Strangers’ Review: A Wry, Socially Conscious Study of a Cleaning Lady Who Pretends to Be Clairvoyant

In “We Strangers,” Rayelle (Kirby) confesses to her mother (Tina Lifford) that she doesn’t have dreams. Perhaps she doesn’t have time for them, or else she’s simply too exhausted to hang onto anything else in her head after spending her days as a cleaning lady, monitoring her every move so as not to become any part of the mess she picks up for other people. Still, this isn’t to say she can’t have fantasies in Anu Valia’s absorbing character study, except like everything else her life, they’re not for herself when her observational skills lead some to think she’s psychic.

After honing her craft directing prestige TV shows such as “The Afterparty” and “Shrill,” Valia makes an aesthetically striking feature debut that may impress even more with the clear eyes she brings to the trickle effect of privilege, envisioning the ability to say no as a luxury that those toiling away in the lowest rungs of society simply can’t afford. The word doesn’t even seem to be in Rayelle’s vocabulary after cleaning out the offices of Dr. Patel (Hari Dhillon), a local dentist who invites her back to tidy up his house despite the fact she doesn’t do domestic work and the prospect of setting her own rate is stress-inducing. However, she could use the cash, even if it’ll come at the cost of rearranging parenting duties of the two kids she has with her partner Mari (Kara Young).

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Presented as an offer with no strings attached, Rayelle finds herself entangled pretty quickly by the largely absent Dr. Patel, first when his neighbor Jean (Maria Dizzia) taps on the window as she’s working, clearly startled to see a Black woman in his home and subsequently stunned to learn she’ll be polishing the counters in Jean’s house after discovering what she thought was a generous tip was actually an advance payment for a job she never agreed to. In between these gigs, Valia provides audiences a well-timed glimpse into Rayelle’s own home life, framed like a distant dream when fading in and out of time spent with her family. Besides appearing where Rayelle would prefer to be, the way the scene is snuck into the larger narrative seems as if it’s information that she has tucked away for herself, not of interest to the people she works for or too cherished to share in other parts of her life.

It’s a ripe irony that Rayelle has the responsibility to learn every detail about her clients, if for no other reason than to better comport herself. But “We Strangers” turns on another when she’s so used to saying yes that she inadvertently suggests she’s clairvoyant when nodding along to a conversation with Jean, an avid watcher of television psychics. Rather than having to back down from this claim, her first wise prediction is that studying the family has given her enough intel to play along for a bit. Yet after channeling Jean’s late sister to her customer’s satisfaction, things get shakier when she’s pulled into sitting down with Dr. Patel’s wife Tracy (Sarah Goldberg) to get at the root of her unhappiness.

Valia proves to be as observant as her lead character, harnessing every element of the film to clearly articulate how her experience in the trenches is governed by others. Ace production design from Amelia Steely clearly delineates the chilly abodes Rayelle works in and warmer climes she has back where people care for her, with cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby consistently finding evocative ways to make the surrounding space work against the character. The score from Jay Wadley brilliantly serves to bring these worlds together when the clarinets of one realm start to coalesce with the percussion in the other, yet the film otherwise keeps them separate, much as Rayelle struggles to do, until the center doesn’t hold. Even the film’s most evident shortcoming is true to form when Rayelle can’t give as much attention to her family as she’d like, frustratingly leaving some relationships a little vague for the viewer. That choice is part of a bewitching structure that drifts in and out of the character’s work routine to show how the mental labor continues after hours.

When any film taking on race and class concerns runs the risk of being wearisome, “We Strangers” proves invigorating as it captures the distance between people of different social strata and closes the gap on the dizzying individual experience of navigating America as a minority.

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