On paper, Dee Rees’ Pariah (expanded from her 2007 short of the same name) sounds like Sundance bait. While the noted independent film festival indeed bought it hook, line and sinker, Pariah is no Precious even though they’re both coming of age stories about troubled young black girls in the big city. Instead of overheated melodrama, Pariah aims for honesty, simplicity and directness and it hits its mark without the cloyingly cutesy quirkiness that are de rigueur for most teen stories these days (see: the appalling It’s Kind of a Funny Story). In so doing, Rees’ film presents a drama from the fringes that also speaks more universally to anyone who remembers the pain of growing up.

Newcomer Adepero Oduye plays Alike (who goes by Lee), an A-student with a flair for poetry and an overprotective mother (Kim Wayans) concerned about her ongoing tomboy phase. Alike, it turns out, is a lesbian and the turmoil she feels over her secret is amplified by her virginity and her timidity about sex.

Oduye perfectly captures that horrible middle ground between child and adult. She’s the irrational, sullen teen pushing back against her mother for the sake of pushing, but she’s also smart and thoughtful and conflicted and scared and confused and the whole miasma of teen emotions. It’s an honest, heartfelt performance, 180 degrees from the usual Hollywood phonies with their emo soundtracks and precocious dialogue.

With Oduye’s confident performance as a cornerstone, Pariah ultimately branches out to cover the whole gamut of teen experience that feels real and surprisingly familiar. Alike grapples with her sexuality, but also with her classmates, her sister, her parents and her future. There’s a great scene where she presents her latest poem to her teacher/mentor and she’s got this satisfied smile of expectation on her face only to be slightly crestfallen when the teacher encourages her to go deeper rather than simply smothering her in platitudes. It’s a small moment, but one of many that enrich a film that feels deeply rooted in personal experience. Writer/director Rees the eye for little details that flesh her film out and more importantly the patience and wisdom to employ them to their fullest extent. Rather than jump from statement to statement in a rush to make a point, Rees gives her story the chance to live and breath. At the same time she never gets so caught up in the details that she loses sight of the bigger picture. It’s a trick many more experienced filmmakers have yet to master.

Also deserving of a special shout out is the lovely, colorful cinematography by Bradford Young. So many small-budgeted indies seem to be ugly by design as much by necessity that it’s refreshing to see a film photographed with care and an eye for beauty.

Ultimately, what really set Pariah apart for me personally is that it doesn’t purely rely on issues or on its minority status for drama. Not to minimize either the issues or the status, but they are simply facts whether you fit neatly into Alike’s demographic or not. When you root for Alike to find her way (and you will), it doesn’t just have to be because of her place as a black woman and a lesbian. It’s more about Alike as a young person in general. While her struggle to find her identity and to embrace it is magnified by its extremity, it is a universal struggle nonetheless and it is here especially powerfully and movingly conveyed.

As a side note, it is yet another embarrassment to the myopic MPAA that this film carries an R rating and will therefore be cut off from a big part of the teen audience who could most benefit from seeing it. There is some language and Pariah is frank in its sexuality, but it is neither graphic nor exploitative. Certain parents’ groups will doubtlessly fear Pariah’s acceptance of “alternative” lifestyles, but it should not be particularly controversial to anyone except the most closed-minded.

6 Responses to “Pariah (2011)”

  1. Beautiful job here in presenting the film’s artistry. I see the reviews are strong, with onhly Richard Brody dissenting. Hope to see it soon. Glad to hear it’s no PRECIOUS. Ha!

  2. This one gets bonus points for not being like all those other movies, though I’m on the fence over whether that’s enough to make it “great”

    I’ll settle for now on very good and be content with that.

  3. Agreed on Pariah. I saw it about two weeks ago and I was pleasantly surprised.

    I really loved the cinematography.

  4. I was surprised too. I kind of figured it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. It will be interesting to see what Rees and Oduye do next.

  5. Beautiful review. I just saw this movie today and really liked it. Everything about it is well-done and the cast is terrific.

  6. Glad it worked for you Alison. Though the movies are nothing alike besides the fact they both revolve around a young black woman, I’m surprised this one hasn’t gotten the kind of awards attention that Precious got. It’s too bad because it’s so much better.

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