New Directors / New Films Festival: ‘Pariah’

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Written by Dee Rees

Directed by Dee Rees

At first glance, Pariah might seem like overly familiar ground covered by countless coming-out stories that have come before, but fortunately there are enough personal touches and multi-faceted developments to make this film a fresh and affecting experience.

Pariah’s conflict revolves around Alike’s (Adepero Oduye) struggle to be true to herself.  Alike’s main obstacles to full self-realization are her parents, who are in complete denial about their daughter’s identity as a young lesbian woman and would prefer it if she would deny it too.  Alike spends nights at a certain disreputable club with likeminded women who dress in baggy men’s clothes and toss singles at female strippers.  She relies on her best friend Laura  (Pernell Walker) to show her the ropes and help her find a suitable girlfriend, but at home Alike is entirely on her own in dealing with her disapproving, hyper-religious mother.  Then Alike meets Bina (Aasha Daviss), the daughter of her mother’s friend from church, and her journey begins a new path that distances her further from her parents and from Laura as well.

Pariah is less concerned with societal pressures than it is with the dynamics of the private home life for a frightened teenager on the cusp of adulthood. The homosexual community still has a long way to go in gaining the acceptance of society at large, but Pariah reminds us that often the most difficult battles for understanding go on in the home where the promise of unconditional love isn’t as certain as it should be.  There is a very definite sense that Alike has found her place in the world already.  She feels free to dress and behave in the masculine fashion she prefers at school and in the clubs she frequents with Laura.  It’s only when she returns to her parent’s house that she essentially has to put on a costume to appear as feminine as possible.

The fantastic talents of the cast give us many wonderfully tender moments, particularly one especially moving scene when Alike’s irritating but loving little sister climbs into bed with her to reassure her big sis that at least one member of the family loves her exactly as she is.  Alike’s interactions with her doting father provide the movie a lot of its sweetness as well, but her relationship with her mother (in a dramatic turn for Kim Wayans) results only in conflict and personal torment.  The biggest accolades belong the film’s young star.  Oduye gives a nuanced and reserved performance, brilliantly navigating the emotionally charged terrain of the film without ever once giving over to the exaggerated sentimentality that is often a danger in this kind of deeply personal storytelling.

The film’s broody atmosphere perfectly compliments its mood.  DP Bradford Young captures Alike’s world in constant darkness.  Does this mean she’s literally in the dark about who she wants to be?  Or could it indicate her need to conceal an identity she’s already embraced?  Pariah is the kind of movie that invites this sort of spirited analysis in the perceptive viewer.  But even through all its shadowy cinematography, it also manages to shed new light on an often overlooked segment of society.

Although the film never makes a point of race issues, the fact that it positively represents a black lesbian character is a powerful statement in itself and lends the narrative a unique angle not many other films can claim.  Pariah proves that if you have seen one coming out-themed movie, you definitely haven’t seen them all.  It offers new insights on an old problem and manages to dispense unexpected delights along with a serious story.

Kenneth Broadway

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