Knowing internally who she is and what she wants, 17-year-old Alike aka Lee (Adepero Oduye) feels comfortable dressing in masculine clothing at her high school and openly looking for a girlfriend as her friend Laura (Pernell Walker) drags her to a lesbian strip club, but knows to hide her homosexuality from her overprotective religious mother (Kim Wayans) and clueless father (Charles Parnell). She thinks she may have found the perfect partner in new friend Bina (Aasha Davis), but Lee’s own romantic inexperience leads to misplaced feelings.
It seemed I spent a good chunk of 2011 hearing about how phenomenal Pariah is, but its distribution took its sweet time reaching Boston. Turns out all of the hype was exactly correct, and this would have made my Favorites of 2011 List for sure. Newcomer Dee Rees weaves together a story of acute emotion that feels altogether fresh in its style and outlook and familiar in its coming-of-age trappings. Here is a film that so perfectly captures the general agony and ecstasy of being a teenage girl, it is both a joy and sorrow to watch. The script is smart and realistic, never slipping into overwrought melodrama or knee-slapper comedy but maintaining subtle elements of both, working in the thrill of first love, the disappointments of friendship, and the disillusionment with parental guidance that affects so many kids. Rees’ camera is up-close and personal, creating an intimate atmosphere with darkened domestic spaces and soft-glow lighting.
This is in many ways an “actor’s movie”, and my does the cast deliver. Adepero Oduye is absolutely fantastic in the lead role, exuding an eagerness and charismatic likability that I immediately latched on to. Here is a woman who should win every award (well, I would say that about the whole movie, really). She even makes readings of teen angst poetry less mockable than I would expect, a tricky feat in my book. I also loved everyone in the supporting cast, from Pernell Walker’s tough-talking but soft-hearted portrayal of Laura to Kim Wayans’ hard-edged mother misguided by religious principle. The Christian angle isn’t overplayed, but does make up a key point. Lee’s mother isn’t some sermonizing religious zealot, but she quietly and emphatically believes what she believes, and doesn’t allow anything to change that. It’s scary how true that is for so many people, but I didn’t feel Rees was being judgmental. She’s showing things the way they are.
Lee’s character embodies the title in several ways as a black lesbian who doesn’t fit in comfortably at school, in her tight-lipped Christian family, or even in her local gay community. Pariah is committed to portraying multidimensional characters and non-stereotypical glimpses into multiple lifestyles and experiences, and I absolutely loved it for that. Walking out of the theater all I could think was, “Damn. What a good movie.”
Pair This Movie With: For a more satirical, comedic look at teenage homosexuality in a religious setting, I am a fan of But I’m a Cheerleader.
A much more insightful review can be found at Cannonball by my friend IRL Harry Waksberg.