Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski likes this pariah better than all those biblical ones.
"Who do you become when you can't be yourself?"
Pariah's title can refer as much to the fate that seemed likely for the film itself as to the title character, for who would have expected that a movie about a gay, African-American girl would find funding, distribution, and an audience? Miraculously, writer-director Dee Rees' debut feature—expanded from her 2007 short of the same name—overcame those "three strikes" against it within the industry, making it to theaters and now to the release of Pariah [Blu-ray]. The fact that it did should tell you something right away about its quality. Indeed, Pariah is an exceptional, must-see film—and not just for those who fit into some or all of those gay, African-American girl categories.
Facts of the Case
Seventeen-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a sweet kid growing up in Brooklyn and getting straight As on her report card, but her parents—especially her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans, In Living Color)—eye her suspiciously because of her boyish clothes and butch best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker). When Audrey tries to push Alike into a better-influence friendship with a church friend's daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis, Friday Night Lights), she upsets the fragile balance of Alike's world and brings tensions in the family to a head.
To say that Pariah is one of the best lesbian movies ever made is both true and reductive. Regrettably, there just aren't that many good lesbian movies, so "one of the best lesbian movies ever made" is a surprisingly low bar to clear. More importantly, Pariah is much more than a lesbian movie, and I'm not going where most readers might expect with that comment. I'm not about to say that it's not a gay story but a "universal" story—an irritating assertion critics and viewers make about almost every good gay film that gets released (for more of that rant, see my contribution to DVD Verdict's multi-judge review of Brokeback Mountain). Though it has some universal themes—coming of age, first love, friendship, generational strife—all of these are realized through a rich specificity of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Pariah isn't universal: it's about the experience of being a middle-class, African-American, gay teenage girl who has a conservative, religious mother and is pulled in two directions by a well-educated, middle-class, feminine friend and a working-class, high-school-dropout, butch lesbian friend. The trick is that all of this specificity is rendered with such grace and heart that Alike's story makes a wide swath of viewers care even if they can't identify. It's also a film that manages to expose its audience to complex intersections of racial, sexual, class, and gender identities without ever feeling like a college sociology lecture (no offense to sociology professors, including my wife!).
Examples of such success abound in Rees' wisely spare script. Amidst the comedy of Alike's misadventures trying out a strap-on dildo she convinces Laura to buy her, Laura has an offhand line about how she had to get Alike a light-"skinned" dildo because the darker ones would all be too big for her. Amid Alike's cringing awkwardness in wearing this thing and the dramatic tension of her sister and then mother barging into the room, Rees' commentary about the racial politics of sex toys remains a small and effective aside, organically integrated into the fabric of the story. The big moments in Pariah are written almost as well, particularly the poetry reading scene at the film's end.
All of Rees' skill as a writer, though, fully depends on her skill as a director and her collaboration with the exceptional performers who make her characters real. Playing Alike, Adepero Oduye nails the young woman's layered vulnerability and self-confidence. Her shy smile and expressive eyes help the audience get to know a character who quietly observes what's going on around her as often as she interacts with it. Alike's best friend, Laura, is wonderfully realized by Pernell Walker, who inhabits the swagger and joy of a young lesbian who has found her look and is getting a lot of girls with it. That side of Laura's personality makes her aching desire for acceptance from the mother who has cast her out—showcased in one of the film's most memorable scenes, when Laura visits her former home—even more poignant. Credit should also go to the ever-crushable Aasha Davis, who reprises the role of the cute, offbeat, and cultured-beyond-her-years high school girl that she played in TV's Friday Night Lights (the beyond-her-years part perhaps comes naturally to an actress who's been done with high school for a long time—as has Oduye). Even very small roles in Pariah are memorable thanks to great performances, such as Zabryna Guevara's turn as a supportive teacher with high standards for Alike's poetry. My only criticism of the cast is that Wayans, in my view, oversells her bitter, lonely character just a bit.
In terms of Pariah's Blu-ray release, this one seems like a good candidate saving a few bucks with a standard DVD purchase. While the image is rich—with especially nice color saturation—and the audio crisp and clear, this is not a big-budget aesthetic extravaganza that really needs the HD treatment. Further, Universal serves up only a paltry handful of extras: a trio of 2-3 minute featurettes, all culled from the same shoot, with Rees, Oduye, and Walker. "Dee Rees: A Director's Style" has Walker and Oduye talking about working with Rees, "A Walk in Brooklyn" touches on the on-location Brooklyn shooting, and "Trying Out Identity: Pariah's Wardrobe" gives some details about costume design (including Oduye's anecdote about borrowing her little brother's clothes for her audition). The thin selection of features is especially frustrating since there are lots more on the film's official Focus Features site (linked in the Accomplices section of this review) that seem like they should have at least been ported over to the Blu-ray.
Showing off great writing, directing, and acting, Pariah gives us access to a seldom-seen type of film protagonist. Destined to become a staple of African-American Cinema courses and PFLAG meetings, this is a wonderful film for a general audience, too.
Not guilty. Despite falling far outside the mainstream, this film is no
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