Directed by: Dee Rees
Written by: Dee Rees (screenplay)
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis and Kim Wayans
Pariah is the remarkably honest if not groundbreaking first feature from writer/director Dee Rees, who adapted it from her own short film. It charts the partial repression and eventual emergence of a young Brooklyn teenager’s (Adepero Oduye) lesbian sexual identity. All of this takes place in a deeply religious, patriarchal African American household where girls are meant to be “girly” and where parents, especially the father (Charles Parnell), are not questioned.
It’s not the father, though, but the mother (Kim Wayans) who challenges and puts down Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay) the most. Like in the more recent and more watered-down animated film Brave, Pariah pits mother/daughter against each other and lets the father largely remain peacekeeper. The key difference, though, is that the peace is not kept.
Rees charts some very explosive territory largely without flinching or looking away. The movie opens in a lesbian strip club as a stripper inches down the pole upside down to the tune of Khia’s raunchy anthem “My Neck, My Back.” Soon, though, the camera’s gaze moves to Alike staring at that stripper, equal parts enraptured and nervous. Her friend Laura (Pernell Walker) tosses money at the dancers, clutching onto other women, clearly more at home.
Pariah’s most keenly observed moment comes after this scene on the two girls’ bus ride home. After Laura exits, Alike makes the quiet transformation from her flat-bill and puffy jacket back to the tight-fitting white shirt her mother bought her. Without uttering a word, Rees and the extraordinary Adepero Oduye make it clear that she can’t be like this at home.
Though the entire cast is excellent, Oduye’s performance is the most consistently great thing about the movie. Her command of complex emotional transitions and delivery of the sometimes overwrought dialogue is key to carrying it through to the end. From the way joy seeps in to her face gradually to the way she often bows her head in both rejection and shame, she conveys Alike’s struggle as it was meant to be shown: in the quiet moments, not the confrontations.
Alike is a character at a crossroads, and though she looks for support in various avenues, she is often greeted with disappointment. She is a bright student and a blooming poet, but outside of school her life is very confusing. It is in Bina, the girl from church her mother forces her to hang out with, that she gets her first glimpse at true affection. Even that has its limits though, as Bina declares that she’s not actually “into girls” but just experimenting. In true melodramatic fashion, this happens after Laura declared her love for Alike and was met with rejection. This sets her up to be completely and totally alone in the tense, emotionally explosive “coming out” scene.
Despite these somewhat manipulative narrative set-ups, Pariah is not exploitative. Alike is treated honestly and sympathetically and, more importantly, so is everyone else. Her mother Audrey is shown as bitter and intolerant but is also impossibly lonely, and Bina comes across sweet and loving until she becomes distant and indecisive.
The characters in Pariah live in a dimmed down version of Brooklyn, where the often bright colors never shine as brightly as they normally would. Rees often drenches darkened rooms in beautiful shades of red and blue, sometimes alternating between the two. This helps convey the divide between mother and daughter just as much as it provides a lovely tint to showcase a blossoming relationship. Those relationships may not last, but those images certainly will.
Rees finds the movie’s resolution in its lack of one, in the way that she leaves relationships complicated, unfinished and even destroyed. In the wake of admitting she is lesbian to her parents, Alike finds what many people who come out often find- that they are rejected by some, accepted by others and, most importantly, that they are free to continue with their lives.