Like many teenagers before her and many who will follow, Alike flutters from one desire to another. On one hand, she yearns for the love and acceptance of her parents. On the other, she really wants to lose her virginity. Both matters are complicated further because she’s a lesbian.
Pariah captures the scattered mind of youth and everything that comes with it. Writer/director Dee Rees’s film is about the hope, frustration, confusion, heartbreak and anger that comes with coming of age. It doesn’t rely on any single goal to give Alike’s story a tidy narrative conclusion, instead allowing its characters to live, breathe and figure out how they want to live.
Pariah will almost certainly earn some comparisons to 2009’s Precious. Both films came out of Sundance and portray black high-school outcasts in New York City. But any further connections are tenuous. Precious worked in extreme melodrama, bombarding its heroine with an ever-mounting collection of problems. Alike’s life is no picnic, but she has a more manageable balance of things going for and against her.
She’s a smart, talented writer with aspirations toward a successful life. Her grades are good. She has a supportive teacher who doesn’t merely encourage her to write, but pushes her to go deeper. When she brings in her writing journal, fully expecting excessive praise, she gets a different message: Of course it’s good, but you’re capable of better. After so many films with protagonists for whom simply putting pen to paper is an achievement, it’s refreshing to see a teacher really challenge a student to up her game for the sake of greater accomplishments.
However, Alike does not excel in social and family matters. While her outcast status can be partly attributed to her sexual orientation, the real problem is her demeanor. She’s a quiet, mumbly grump. Anyone who doesn’t know her won’t want to. Rather than risk mockery, she never opens up.
Rees and actress Adepero Oduye create a fascinating divide between Alike’s different sides. It’s almost a shock someone with such a steely exterior is capable of smiling and laughing. Oduye shows real talent as she blends hope, anxiety and reticence into one cohesive character.
If by day Alike is a talented student and social outcast, by night she’s a covert clubber. Some girls change into more revealing clothes once out of their parents’ view. Alike dons the attire of a butch lesbian. Her home attire has slightly more femininity—but not enough to please her mother (Kim Wayans), who thinks the solution is to buy her daughter girly clothes and forbid her from seeing her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who dropped out of school after her mother kicked her out. Laura has the lesbian experience Alike lacks and has vowed to help her hook up with a girl.
Unfortunately for Alike’s hormones, mom has other plans and forces her daughter to hang out with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of one of her coworkers. While not enthusiastic about her plight, Alike soon discovers that other people can, shock of shocks, be interesting, despite preconceived notions.
Meanwhile, her father (Charles Parnell) hears people talk about the lesbian club down the street, along with the whispers about his daughter’s orientation, and greets them with anger and denial. He has his own secrets—he often comes home late and offers no clue as to where he’s been. Every relationship in the family is strained. Alike’s home has become a powder keg of deception and omission. Even so, the film is smart enough to let happy moments of bonding emerge, even during pain.
Conversely, pain can come during joy and progress. Perhaps the most important thing about Alike’s journey is how hard it is to take steps forward. Yes, in order to grow she needs to open up to people and be honest with her parents, but no matter what she does, there’s no law saying her fellow humans must rise to the occasion. Indeed, there are genuine moments of shock and fear as we see the inherent prejudice that exists in her community. If occasionally too on-the-nose, the film deals with its touchy subject with real conviction, and makes clear its heroine’s obstacles.
Writer/director Rees has a knack for being simultaneously observational and compassionate. She crafts well-constructed shots in what at first glance looks like improvised handheld cinematography. Pariah bulges with the rich atmosphere of Brooklyn and the yearning fragility of youth. It isn’t the kind of film in which everything is neatly wrapped up by the end. Instead, it allows its character to look for herself and, with any luck, choose her own future.
Director: Dee Rees
Writer: Dee Rees
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell & Aasha Davis
Release Date: Dec. 28, 2011