Pariah

5 Jan

Title: Pariah
Year: 2011
Director: Dee Rees
Writer: Dee Rees
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Aasha Davis
MPAA Rating: R, sexual content and language
Runtime: 86 min
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Metacritic: 74

 

Coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival Pariah got some really nice buzz going for it, winning the Excellence in Cinematography Award, and earning great notices for the writing-directing debut of Dee Rees (making a feature-length version of a twenty-seven minute short of the same title she did in 2007) as well as some terrific praise for the lead performance from Adepero Oduye. So I finally got to watch it and yeah, this is a thoroughly amazing film, a splendid debut by Ms. Rees who gives us a simple narrative that’s yet so charged with stuff, a fearless kind of examination of finding your true identity; a tender, sensitive, thoughtful look at the life of Alike, a seventeen-year-old African American woman who’s coming to terms and embracing her identity as a lesbian.

As amazing a debut film Pariah is for Dee Rees, it’s even a more stunning debut performance from Adepero Oduye as Alike. It’s just such an amazing performance in which she subtly and so seamlessly captures every little emotion this young woman is going through, watching her grow into this character, give this superb performance, really is watching a star being born, and you just get the sense that this girl is meant for great things. Alike has known she’s a lesbian for years, though she hasn’t said so to her sister or her parents or anyone that’s not Laura, her very out-and-proud best friend, though you get the sense that her sexual preference is something that’s known in her home, just not acknowledged. She’s never kissed another girl and is really eager to come out, yet not knowing how to do it exactly, not without it coming as a blow to her religious mother who still buys her pink clothes or her father who’s a cop and calls her “daddy’s little girl”.

The performance by Ms. Oduye is so wonderful that we need not a single expository scene, no dialogue to really set up much of Alike’s life. As the film opens we know this girl will be the soul and heart of this film, as we see her in a lesbian club and, with just her eyes, she expresses what other debut writer-directors would have used dialogue to explain, she lets us know that she yearns to belong in such a surrounding, but is a ways off to actually feeling at ease in them, expressing a delicate kind of shyness. On the bus home that night it’s that Pariah, and Ms. Rees, establishes its very unique voice, as Alike changes back from the outfit she wore at the club to the one she’ll be entering her home in. We feel her anxiety and sadness at having to go through this transformation; she not being able to come out to their parents and them not being able to recognize what they’ve been seeing for quite some time now.

It’s also with this scene that Pariah finds its style, with a hip-hop kind of beat setting the pacing brilliantly, and the aforementioned brilliant cinematography, done by Bradford Young (who also worked on the original short) giving us some fast shots, wonderfully photographed, that work really well to express the inner-workings of Alike. And at the center of it is Ms. Oduye who just seamlessly follows the smart direction of Ms. Rees and gets into the role so thoroughly, and expresses the changes in Alike’s personalities, from the tomboyish lesbian to daddy’s little girl to the girl that still wears pink at her mother’s bequest. It’s because of her that you get connected with this film, because of her raw and tender performance, and it’s because of her ability to make you believe her unease that you invest in both Alike’s coming-out story and in her regular I-think-I’m-falling-for-someone love story.

As we move from Alike’s school life, where she’s a straight-A student that writes poetry about butterflies breaking free from cocoons, to her home life we see the difference and source of her anxiety. It’s in her home that you see some kind of repressed issues between her parents, her mom is quietly trying to guide her daughter to a “normal” life, hoping that she’s straighten herself out, her dad is a much friendlier image to Alike, but still a complex man, and the issue of her sexuality seems to bring forth in her home a tension with deeper roots than that.

Her mother, who knows the deal with Laura, wants Alike to stop seeing her and instead hang out with Bina, the daughter of a church-going friend of hers. The one thing Alike’s mother doesn’t know is that Bina is experimenting with her sexuality herself. While we’ve certainly seen other films about the process of coming out, which will equip us to somewhat know what to expect from Pariah, there’s still an element of surprise to see how Dee Rees exemplifies the coming out process, the awkwardness of it all, and much of that comes from the fact that, while not shying away from the explicit and graphic nature of the discussions had about sexuality, the emotions brought forth by Alike are quite innocent and sweet, and that’s just wonderful to watch.

This is such an impressive debut film by Dee Rees, one that only leaves you wanting to see more from her, to see what she’s going to do next considering she’s shown such a level of maturity in her debut. This is also a fine showcase for Bradford Young’s photography. And, most importantly, it’s a stellar debut from Adepero Oduye, taking the role she originated in the short and doing just wonders with it, embodying it fully, she’s meant for really great stuff. Pariah is a wonderful film, it probably won’t be the easiest one to get to watch, but I urge you to go out and seek it, you won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A-

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