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Pariah (2011)

April 28, 2012

 

written by: Dee Rees

produced by: Nekisa Cooper

directed by: Dee Rees

rating: R (for sexual content and language)

runtime: 86 min.

U.S. release date: December 28, 2011 (limited ) and January 4, 2012 (wide)

DVD/Blu-ray release date: April 24, 2012

 

For her feature debut, writer/director Ree Dees loosely draws on her own experiences coming out as a lesbian, delivering a drama free of cliches, populated with fine nuanced performances that are grounded in passionate realism. Here is a film that everyone can relate to, because regardless of our sexual orientation, we all long to be accepted and loved as we discover who we are- especially during the teen years. The film that initially came to mind while watching “Pariah” was Lee Daniels’ Oscar-winning film “Precious”, since both focus on Brooklyn minorities navigating their way through challenging times. While the subject matter in “Pariah” isn’t as harrowing as “Precious”, it is no less compelling to see a teen struggle with her sexual identity and the challenges that entails. Both films offer something special, a natural immersion into a world that is likely to be unfamiliar to many moviegoers, providing viewers with a different cultural environment and awareness.

Seventeen year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye, “Half Nelson”) lives with her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mallese) and their mom and dad in Brooklyn’s Fort Green middle class neighborhood. Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kah), called “Lee” by her friends, leaves for school each morning with a change of clothes in her bag, so she can change into the person she truly is – the person she cannot allow her parents to see. Her overbearing, religious mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans, “In Living Color”) wouldn’t take her burgeoning homosexuality well, especially since she doesn’t approve of Alike’s seemingly only friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), herself a lesbian as well. But Audrey knows what’s going on and is fearful for her daughter and frustrated that her husband, Arthur (Charles Parnell), Alike’s father, isn’t doing anything about it. Their marriage has its own visible strain, due to Audrey’s exasperation and a combination of Arthur’s suspicious extra-marital behavior and all his hours working as a detective. He dotes on his daughters, but still can’t come to terms with who Alike is, even when he’s forced to.

 

 

In an attempt to keep Alike away from Laura and the crowd they hang with, Audrey introduces her to Beena (Aasha Davis), a daughter of a friend from church. She’s hoping for a positive Christian influence on Alike, yet she has no idea that pairing these two up will give Alike an opportunity to explore her sexuality even more. With the end of high school looming, Alike is looking to pursue an education in writing and must make some decisions about her future and where her place with her family and her friends will be. Despite the discrimination, heartbreak and confusion she experiences, Alike remains confident and positive.

This is Dees second time adapting her semi-autobiographical screenplay to film. In 2007 she filmed a short with the same title and this expansion is populated by most of the actors from that first effort. With such an honest and complex approach to such a personal subject, Dees talent makes her a refreshing find, one whose future work should be anticipated. She has a creative asset in cinematographer Bradford Young, who gives the film a compelling allure with his use of shadows and the colorful purples and blues he employs. The shaky cam technique used at times feels a bit too much like an indie staple, but it does ground the film in an almost documentary style realism. Since I have not seen the short, I have no clue if this feature looks any different.

 

 

“Pariah” introduces us to a culture we seldom see on-screen or know about off-screen. I certainly had no idea what “AG” or Aggressive Girl, which the Urban Dictionary defines as “a stone cold butch gangsta lesbian”. These are lesbians and bi-curious girls that dress in baseball caps and oversized jerseys, looking like thugged-out boys. This is how Laura carries herself 24/7 and how Alike dresses away from her family.  While she may be accepted among them, Alike also finds herself unsure if she can be content in their reclusive group.  I found myself intrigued by the behavior of these girls and how, like gang members, they can embrace each other like family members and also ostracize them at the same time.

The film does have its flaws though. For one thing, at under 90 minutes, it feels too short. Certainly more time could’ve been spent developing subplots that could’ve led to more character growth and development. The third act of “Pariah” suffers a bit from some harsh editing that feels forced and rushed. Maybe that has to do with the low-budget or possibly a deliberate choice to leave viewers wanting more. The audience will definitely feel this way due to the talented efforts of the cast.

It’s the performances of “Pariah” that resonate most. In the lead, Oduye is riveting in a role that demands much from her. At times, she is devastating as Alike as we watch her react to her first kiss and especially a late-night conversation with her father. Oduye deftly handles Alike’s fears and insecurities, but also brightens the film whenever she smiles and is quite captivating as we see her create her own path in life. Her acting isn’t showy in any way, instead intuitively focused, fully supported by Rees. As a pariah, Alike may be an outcast or without status, but Rees “Pariah” leaves us hopeful that she will find her place in the world and those around her will come to respect whatever that may be.

 

RATING: ***

 

 

 

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