Year Released: 2011
Director: Dee Rees
Screenplay by: Dee Rees
Rating: (4.5/5 Stars)
Pariah opens at a nightclub that caters to lesbians; we hear raunchy music and see a particularly limber pole dancer flaunting her talent. After glimpsing this scene, the youth and innocence of the 17-year-old protagonist Alike (Adepero Oduye) and her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) come as a bit of a surprise.
I immediately warmed up to these two young women. Alike is exceptionally bright and creative. She is somewhat shy and reserved but has a smile that could light up a room. Laura is a bit edgy and boisterous. She works hard to make ends meet and pass the GED after being abandoned by her mother.
Our first glimpse of Alike is memorable. Instead of a camera zooming in on her, we see a tight shot of her back and face. This sets the tone for the movie. It's very intimate and real. I found myself feeling as if I were in Alike's skin, and when she was hurting, I had knots in my stomach.
Alike is a successful student and aspiring writer. She hides her homosexuality from her schoolmates -- even as she watches them closely, she keeps her distance. She also stays closeted with her father Arthur (Charles Parnell), an affectionate but unhappy police officer, and her eternally anxious, frustrated mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) who is deeply threatened by her daughter's "butch" image. Both parents clearly sense the truth but don't want to face it, so everyone is stumbling around the elephant in the room.
Audrey's mother's fears over Alike's sexuality strain her relationship with her daughter to the breaking point and cause turmoil in her already badly damaged marriage. As her mother struggles to control her and their parents' volatile marriage erupts around them, Alike and her sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) turn to each other for comfort. And as the story unfolds, Alike experiences first love, heartbreak, and a painful coming out.
I had never heard of this film, which my daughter selected from Netflix, and I was blown away by it. Top-notch performances by all the actors, strong script-writing, and outstanding cinematography, including scenes that were mostly shot in natural light, make this one of the most real and believable films I've seen in a long time. I was particularly captivated by Adepero Oduye's performance. When I saw pain in her face, I found it wrenching to look at.
The character development is exceptionally nuanced. Each character is flawed yet worthy of respect and compassion. I was enraged with Alike's mother, yet I empathized with her and, at times, actually hurt for her. I consider that a tremendous accomplishment. Furthermore, the film artfully refrains from saying too much, side-stepping cliches and straightforward answers.
This film also speaks volumes about adolescence -- the urgent search for sexual expression coming up against naivety and fear. The desire for uniqueness and rebellion versus the need to hide or conform. The continually shifting relationships with parents and peers, the search for love, and the constant yearning.
I loved this compassionate, thoughtful, incredibly lifelike drama, and I am excited to see what Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye will do in the future. This is one of the most unforgettable films I've seen in a long time.
A Personal Note:
Presumably, my husband and I would be the easiest parents in the world to "come out" to. :-P We've talked to our kids openly about homosexuality from a very early age, just letting them know that sometimes men date or marry men and women date or marry women. It's less common than the traditional way, but not unusual. We just wanted them to grow up knowing it's part of life and no big deal. What does matter is cherishing love when you find it and treating an intimate partner with respect and compassion.
About a year ago, a town near us held a meeting to discuss the problem of gay and lesbian teens thrown out on the streets because they came out to their parents. I'm not kidding. Apparently this was a common enough occurence that the city had to intervene to ensure these kids have a safe place to go. I was speechless.
This topic -- parents rejecting their kids over sexual orientation -- is painful to me, and that's one of the reasons I was in tears by the end of Pariah. I guess it's because I'm a mom, and I know how fierce, all-consuming, and often painful that kind of love is. I also know what it's like to be afraid you're going to lose one of your children. How can any kind of fear or prejudice be powerful enough to break down the instinct to love, accept, and protect your kids? I can't fathom it. What is it about the "otherness" of homosexuality that scares some people so damn much?