When she and writer-director Dee Rees were trying to turn their short film into a feature, says producer Nekisa Cooper in Pariah’s production notes, potential funders kept saying it was “a bit too ’small and specific.’” Specific? Sure. But there’s nothing small about this deeply felt coming-of–age story.
Pariah’s Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay and played with grave sensitivity by Adepero Oduye) is a Fort Greene teen who’s learning to trust her instincts and find her place in the world. Shy and often unsure of herself, but rock-solid at her core, Oduye’s Alike is a 17-year-old searcher you can believe in. Her story is a classic adolescent quest, complicated by the fact that she’s gay in a world where a lot of people, including her tightly wound mother, think homosexuality is an abomination.
This is the kind of movie that lives or dies in the details, and Pariah gets nearly all of them right. The setup dialogue between Alike and her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), and overprotective mother (Kim Wayans) is a little too on the nose. The AP English teacher who urges Alike to “go deeper” is as off-puttingly idealized as Paula Patton’s teacher in Precious, and the soul-baring writing read aloud in her class is almost as bluntly expository. And a subplot about Laura studying and passing her GED only to have the door slammed in her face when she goes to give her mother the news feels tacked-on and uncharacteristically didactic.
But when she lays back and lets her story unspool, Rees displays a winning intimacy with the world she portrays, a canny feel for her characters, and an eye and ear for little things that loom large, like the truncated speech that clues Alike in to Laura’s true feelings for her. It’s all good because, as Alike’s new friend says of one of her poems, it feels so real.
The bougie perfection of Alike’s family’s brownstone, the aggressively sexed-up music and pole dancers at the gay club where she goes on weekends, and the twisty course of her relationship with her new friend, a straight girl her mother sets her up with in hopes of separating her from Laura, are just some of the aspects we see of the often contradictory worlds Alike is learning to navigate. Her relationships with her parents and their relationship with each other are also realistically difficult, intensely loving but fraught with conflict, and laced with an underlying tension that bubbles up into violence in an emotional scene between Alike and her mother. We even follow her parents to work, where her stiff-necked mother’s foiled attempt to befriend a popular co-worker provides one of the movie’s most poignant moments.
But this is Alike’s story, so the camera keeps seeking her out. Beautiful faces beautifully lit anchor Bradford Young’s sumptuous cinematography, and one of those faces is usually hers. His camera finds her as she tries to hide in plain sight, lingering on her expressive eyes and the lush curves of her face. And it captures her and her father in their climactic reconciliation on a Brooklyn rooftop at magic hour, bathing their gorgeous profiles in golden light. That sight makes their words all but irrelevant, carrying its own potent message of redemption and love.
Pariah will play on March 26 and 28 as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.