In Dee Rees’s Pariah, life outside the club looks a lot like it does inside. The only thing, it seems, that separates both realms is the music: Inside you get to hear Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” while outside watered-down Baduizms reign supreme. Bradford Young, who won a Sundance prize for his cinematography, seems to have manipulated his images in-camera and during the digital-immediate phase to give the film the same gritty-glossy, sometimes antiseptic, look of 25th Hour (Spike Lee, it should be noted, is one of this film’s executive producers). When Pariah’s main character, Alike (Adepero Oduye), bonds with her sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), in bed while their parents fight downstairs, you wonder if the digital numbers on the adjacent alarm clock are radioactive given the redness that subsumes the frame, or if the girls happen to be crashing in Hype William’s pad. Striking, yes, but more thana little bogus.
Like Ballast before it, Pariah suggests and suffers from the influence of the Dardenne brothers. In both films, the post-doc, jarringly realistic tenor of the Dardennes’ signature aesthetic is, with all sorts of color correction, distorted into something less casual, more canned—a borrowed-then-trumped-up style that becomes especially problematic when you consider how it’s been applied to stories about present-day African-American experience. In Pariah, the effect is also an easy one: Alike, a 17-year-old girl who isn’t out to her parents, is often shot from a distance, through cracks in doors, or from the side, so only part of her face is visible to us at any time. It would seem that the camera, like Alike, also lives in the closet.
Which is to say that Pariah’s aesthetic distracts from the emotional truthfulness of its sometimes heartbreaking and by and large gorgeously performed narrative. The look of film, an expansion of Rees’s 2007 short of the same name, is practically fantastical: A character refers to an old apartment “way out in Queens,” while another mentions a pier—Christopher, perhaps?—where young gays hang out, but you’ll only know for sure that we’re in New York from the writing on Alike’s father’s (Charles Parnell) police badge or the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge, conveyed only as a string of blurry lights in the background behind Alike in one scene. Rees’s choice to have Young almost literally evaporate the story’s sense of place gives Pariah a distinctly universal feel, but even this one good effect always registers as such: an effect.
Like its self-conscious imagery, Pariah’s script is overcooked. Rees gets how a child’s closeted life can lead to contentiousness in the home, wrecking relations between children and their parents, husbands and their wives, and throughout scenes that recall the best of Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, scenes so truthful they could only have been based on real incidents from Rees’s past, the film intimately, painfully depicts that seemingly irrational view parents have of their children’s queerness, the way they’re torn between protecting their offspring to death and casting them out. But for every achingly sketched moment of a closeted life wanting to scream its truth, you get two nuance-sucking articulations of how tough it still is to be gay—not to mention gay and nonwhite—in America today.
Alike’s mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), in an attempt to keep her daughter away from her butch BFF, Laura (Pernell Walker), hooks her up with a church friend’s daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), who gladly gives Alike her first kiss. Happily ever after, it would seem, but though Bina willingly beds Alike, she wakes up skeeved, and Davis fails to make credible her character’s absurd mood swing. In the end, the girl is no less a type than Audrey, who obsesses over Alike’s personal upkeep as if the girl’s sexuality were her full-time job. It doesn’t help that Wayans overplays her character’s defensiveness, though to be fair, Rees doesn’t give the actress the same room to breathe that she lavishes on Parnell as Arthur. If his character’s highly conflicted relationship to his daughter’s lesbianism feels more richly realized, it’s because we see how his honor, like his shame, is tested at work among colleagues and friends, and how his guilt over his behavior destructively spills over into his personal life.
I’ll take Pariah’s heavy-handed butterfly metaphor and the bluntness with which the vocabulary words that Laura studies for her GED (like “clandestine”) so cloyingly coincide with her closeted life. I’ll even take the film’s music-video chic, because that means also having Oduye’s performance. She makes poignant, without sentimentalizing, the sad daily ritual of Alike dyking herself down on the bus ride from school to home, the unspoken-ness with which she and Laura acknowledge the rules of their friendship after a dramatically undramatic tiff, and the way a moment of tenderness between siblings opens the door for a sister, in her own language, to tell the other that she accepts her lifestyle—without either of them saying what exactly is being accepted. It’s a smart, tough performance that’s full of range and never feels self-serving. It’s in her tears, though it’s also in her smile, as in a scene where Arthur teaches Alike how to park a car and she pleads to drive it home. It’s a rare moment of happiness for these two characters, and it’s one that Oduye understands as the kind of fuel a gay kid like Alike, or like Rees once was, needs in order to remind themselves that things do get better.
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