There’s a heavy-handed ominousness from the first frame of The Strays, Netflix’s new entry into the stuffed category of social horror. Dissonant music plays over a concrete block apartment building in London, in which Cheryl (Ashley Madekwe), a light-skinned Black woman, appears in distress. There are bank statements crumpled on the counter, a headline blaring “Black kids betrayed by schools”, a mention of credit card debt in a phone call to her sister, a voice-cracking lament of wanting more. It’s the mid-2000s, and someone keeps calling Cheryl on her old brick phone before she walks out the door with a duffel bag and note about popping to the hairdresser, presumably on the run.

It’s an unsettling, propulsive start that provokes several promising questions – where is she going? Why is she leaving? Who is the sinister voice on the answering machine? All the baselines of a thriller. Some get answered, but most do not, in any satisfying or specific way. British actor and writer Nathaniel Martello-White’s directorial debut nudges at some uncomfortable fault lines of race and class, but tends to over-index unearned suspense for character development or insight.

That comes chiefly at the expense of Madekwe’s better-than-it-should-be performance as Neve, neé Cheryl, now a deputy headmistress at an overwhelmingly white public school in a tiny English suburb. Married to a white man, an insurance broker named Ian (Justin Salinger), and fully absorbed in the mannerisms of pastoral white wealth, Neve’s story essentially functions, at first, as a passing narrative. She drives a Range Rover, wears strings of pearls and pussy bows, hosts a gala raising funds for “unfortunate individuals” in Africa, hides her natural hair beneath a series of manicured wigs. 

Her race is not a secret (“We’re Black,” says her son Sebastian, played by Samuel Small, when Neve balks at Ian’s hiring of a Black woman at his office), but it is verboten; she never mentions Blackness, discourages her daughter Mary’s (Maria Almeida) styling of her baby hairs, and begins falling to pieces at the sight of two dark-skinned Black youths, whose unusual presence in town and in Neve’s new life toggles between spectral and literal, or sometimes both.

The long shadow of Get Out looms over these haunting stares, in a thriller predicated on some level on the exposure of racism. (A sudden minor car crash and a slow-motion shot of Neve sipping tea played to dramatic effect, for example, feel like direct rip-offs.) But Martello-White’s handle on social horror slips as the 97-minute film backtracks in its second act (as delineated by unnecessary, distracting chapter title cards) to retell the previous five days through the eyes of Carl (Jorden Myrie) and Dione (Bukky Bakray), the figures vexing Neve, who have their own obvious, and over-acted, motivations for exposing her as Cheryl.

Martello-White has an eye for unnerving, intriguing details – a garishly smiling monkey toy in the hallway of Cheryl’s old apartment, the way Neve brushes Ian’s hand away from her face while they’re having sex, lest he touch her hair. The sound design on Neve’s frantic scratching at the edges of her wig as her past unravels her present was sharp and pronounced enough to make my skin itch. (The visual aesthetic, for that matter, looks more dimensional and specific than most Netflix movies, but still has a bit of the streamer’s telltale overlit, glaring sheen.)

There’s something provocative and interesting in how severely Neve compartmentalizes her life as a Black woman and, in all but name, a white one, how internalized racism passes down to her children. Madekwe’s performance as a woman cleaved from herself – in accent, voice and posture – and of the psychological violence required to maintain appearances, is disconcerting throughout, though hampered by a clunky script that builds little connective tissue between characters. (A variation of “what is wrong with you?!” is used one too many times.)

The Strays is, thankfully, not a Them situation which perpetuates violence and degradation against Black characters in the name of representation or honesty. (It is also, save for a final act twist, relatively light on violence.) But it also ends up with little to say on the racial divides and dynamics it initially sets up. The final inevitable, overplayed collision between Neve’s family and Cheryl’s legacy goes off the rails, into what amounts to a punchline that undermines its own ambitions for social commentary. It’s an uncomfortable final 15 minutes, stilted and strange, and not in a productive, introspective way. The Strays sets up an intriguing examination of race, privilege and the difficulty of social mobility for Black Britons but, as Cheryl once did, ultimately bails.