Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pariah

Pariah, written and directed by first-timer Dee Rees, is a quiet but confident success that may in time be regarded as a harbinger of a new wave in LGBT filmmaking. Alike (pronounced "Ah-lee-kay" and well played by Adepero Oduye) is a Brooklyn teenager slowly coming into her own as a lesbian, though she must change clothes on the bus in order to appease her conservative mother Audrey (Kim Wayans). Alike's best friend is the openly gay Laura (Pernell Walker), who favors ball caps and men's shirts. Choices in dress and what those choices signify mirror Alike's efforts to find a niche in the lesbian community. Alike doesn't feel quite herself in the outfits Laura suggests, but she knows the church clothes that Audrey picks out aren't her either. Alike's work-weary father Arthur (Charles Parnell) recognizes what's going on with his daughter but can't acknowledge it because of the uproar it would cause at home. It's in her writing that Alike is most fully herself, she's an AP English student with a flair for poetry that impresses her teacher and may get her a college scholarship. In a welcome note of restraint, there's nothing transformative or empowering about the poetry Alike writes and reads in Pariah. It's is quite simply an outlet that she must have in order to claim her identity, since so many other means of doing so are blocked or out of reach. Alike's unexpected attraction to Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of her mother's co-worker, complicates her efforts to discover what kind of lesbian she wants to be.

Pariah is a film about attempted connections; Alike can't fully embrace the circle Laura runs in, while her peaceful moments with Audrey are all too brief. Alike and Bina bond over music, but it isn't clear that both girls understand their feelings to the same degree. What makes Pariah (a shaky title, by the way) so moving is that it isn't just a film about entering the gay community but also about entering adult life. After a well-staged and frightening confrontation with her family(Wayans' Audrey, angry at everyone, is scorching.), the realization that Alike's true home lies elsewhere comes almost as a relief. Adepero Oduye plays Alike with a devastating smile and a palpable need or love of all kinds; Alike rides into her next chapter beholden to no one's idea of who should be, and it's that sense of new discovery that makes Pariah feel like the first of what comes next.

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