Filmmaker Dee Rees (a protégé of Spike Lee) has expanded on and refashioned her quasi-autobiographical 2007 short film Pariah for her feature debut—and a pretty terrific debut film it is. It’s smart, heartfelt, savvy, beautifully acted—and clever enough at 86 minutes not to overstay its welcome. It also has the good sense to inject a certain amount of (not always entirely comfortable) humor. And possibly the best thing about the film is that it feels at least a little bit like an independent film from the days when that label wasn’t interchangeable with mean, drab-looking, dreary, dour dramas.
The film stars Adepero Oduye (who played the role in the short) as Alike (ah-lee-kay), a Brooklyn teenager, a good student and a hopeful poet with a solid middle-class family. Alike is also a closeted lesbian who is not only stifled by a life that causes her to “feminize” herself on her way home, but also by the fact that she’s never had any kind of sexual relationship. Her parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell), are in a state of what can best be called willful denial. Yet, it’s clear that they really know what the score is—why else is Audrey so dead set against Alike having the obviously lesbian Laura (Pernell Walker, also reprising her short-film role) for a friend?—but the issue is scrupulously avoided in a kind of “ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away” manner.
For that matter, Alike—aware that Laura’s own mother has completely disowned her daughter—is neither anxious to out herself, nor is she wholly comfortable with Laura’s lesbian-nightclub scene. Alike resents her own mother’s intrusion into her life by trying to fix her up with a more “appropriate” (mom thinks) friend, the daughter of one of her churchgoing friends. Resent it all she likes, she still puts up with it because there’s simply not much choice. Imagine her surprise when this daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), turns out to be completely different than Alike expects. This creates a situation more disillusioning, even more heartbreaking, than her original fears—but it’s exactly the kind of pitfall apt to ensnare any relationship novice, gay or straight.
You’re probably thinking that both coming-of-age and coming-out movies have been done to death one way or another. Whether or not that’s true, I have to say I’ve never seen either one done quite the way Pariah is. There’s a freshness and vibrancy here—and it also gets into an area that I’m not sure has ever been as directly addressed as it is here. I refer to the aspect of a mother whose religious convictions preclude any degree of acceptance of or further interest in her daughter—apart from praying for her—once the truth comes out. This is where I think Roger Ebert errs in his belief that the word “pariah” is too “loaded” a word for the title, because as far as Alike’s mother is concerned that is exactly what Alike is—and, unfortunately, she isn’t alone in that perception. See this often-remarkable little film. Rated R for sexual content and language.