With its unaffected yet affecting lead performance and relatively novel, culturally specific setting, debut writer-director Dee Rees' Pariah offers an at-times fresh take on the coming-out drama.
The film, which won a cinematography award and good notices — not to mention a purchase from art-house heavyweight Focus Features — at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, stars Adepero Oduye as Alike, a gifted 17-year-old African-American lesbian from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who is in the process of fully owning her sexuality.
Alike shares her home life with a loving but combative younger, more girlish sister (Sahra Mellesse) under the eye of a worried, tradition-minded mother (Kim Wayans) and a more open-minded but gruff workaholic father (Charles Parnell). The sister knows about Alike's sexuality. The mother suspects. The father is in denial.
A loner at school, Alike's only friend seems to be Laura (Pernell Walker), a more butch dropout pursuing her G.E.D. We meet Alike and Laura in the striking opening sequence at an underground club — "the Kitty Litter, the Cat Box, something like that," Alike's police detective father says later — catering to African-American lesbians, which puts a spin on the standard strip-club milieu. The dirty version — which is really, really filthy — of Khia's 2001 hip-hop hit "My Neck, My Back" plays as Laura throws dollar bills at strippers, perhaps performing the role of leering patron she's seen in movies and music videos. Alike sits, cowering, beside her in a mix of awe and adolescent terror. She's ready to start asserting her sexuality but maybe not ready for this.
On the bus ride home, curfew threatening, Alike transforms back into a "girl," removing her oversized polo shirt, 'do-rag, and ball cap; putting back on a more feminine top and earrings — a process she more or less duplicates in the mornings before and the afternoons after school. (A couple of brief scenes suggesting the out Laura's near-total estrangement from her parents offers a glimpse of what Alike may fear.)
Coming out blends into coming of age as Alike has her first romantic encounter with the more assured daughter of one of her mother's co-workers and becomes more confident about affirming her sexuality within an increasingly intense home.
Pariah is similar in many ways to another Sundance feature from last year, Gun Hill Road, which screened locally last year at the Outflix Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. The story of a transgender black/Latino boy living a similarly secret life in a similarly traditional middle-class Bronx home, Gun Hill Road didn't garner even the modest theatrical release that's brought Pariah to Studio on the Square this week and is a more erratic, unintentionally melodramatic film. But Gun Hill Road's astonishing lead performance from newcomer Harmony Santana might mark it as the more important work of the two films.
Pariah is marred at times by a too-earnest, too-literal folkie-soul hard-sell soundtrack (sample lyrics: "I know I'm going to find a way someday to live my life without your anger" and "My spirit takes journey, my spirit takes flight"). And a side plot featuring Alike's bad poetry about butterflies, which is apparently enough to get her early admission into Berkeley and thus speed her emancipation, feels more like cinematic wish-fulfillment than something earned on the screen. The film's 86-minute run time feels spotty rather than tidy, with a too-accelerated final act. But Oduye's grounded performance and the film's generous, tender depiction of problems as universally mundane as they are searingly individual helps Pariah overcome its missteps.
Opening Friday, February 17th
Studio on the Square