Perhaps Pariah occupies a title that is a bit too heavy for its subject matter. The film around a seventeen year old girl, black and lesbian in an urban neighborhood, that is trying to come of age in a time where she is placed into the rare category of being “a minority within a minority.” She has some friends, a distant relationship with her parents (not uncommon in teens), and, at the end, her future still has rays of light peaking through the gloom. I have hope for her, and believe that labeling her as a “pariah” is a bit too harsh.
The seventeen year old is named Alike (A-lie-kah, played by Adepero Oduye). Her parents are the heavily-Christian Audrey (Wayans) and the workaholic Arthur (Parnell). Alike usually spends her nights at seamy nightclubs, with her friends and a trusty fake ID. She finds it harder and harder to keep her desires and orientation concealed from her family, and, like most girls around that age, resorts to peer discussions which serve as her motivation.
Let’s stop right there; it takes no expert to realize that this is a cliche premise. I understand that. What do I say about cliche premises? When taken with enough heart, seriousness, and personality, they can be involving pictures all the same. Pariah gets involved with a number of different areas in film, that usually go untouched in a coming of age picture.
For one, atmosphere is put to great use here. This is a story of urban alienation, depicting homosexuality in areas where we don’t often see it. I was reminded of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver while watching a lot of Pariah. Atmospheres are brightly colored and vividly shot. Lots of shots bleed with color, and a lot of silence is punctuated by inviting background music, sometimes cut with boombox hip-hop. Both stories depict lonely protagonists, hungering for acceptance in society, but are continuously left lost, wandering in the sea of despair.
Movies like Pariah are wonderful because they showcase new talents in a familiar world. Another fantastic debut this year was Josh Trank’s Chronicle, which had a creative premise, determined actors, and a slick script that lacked in cheap exploitation and gimmicks. Pariah was originally a twenty-eight minute short film, created by director Dee Rees, and in just a few years, has expanded the idea into a fantastic film. Spike Lee serves as one of the executive producers, and in many ways, from the gritty writing to the unsettling atmosphere (just like in Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X) it mirrors a film he could’ve made.
Not to mention, aside from the film’s behind the scenes work, it is also a beauty performance-wise. Adepero Oduye is forced to carry a grand weight of the film on her back, and accepts the challenge almost effortlessly, and Kim Wayans as the blatantly harsh mother, holding back fits of rage and attitude is also a well unsung role. Pariah’s story is a great one, depicting homosexuality in places we don’t think about, another fascinating story of urban alienation, and showcasing extremely well-cast actors performing beautifully written material. If it keeps up, Dee Rees could become the female Spike Lee.
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, and Aasha Davis. Directed by: Dee Rees.