Picked up by Focus Features at January’s Sundance Film Festival, Pariah has an opportunity to be an uncompromising portrait of an oft-unseen sect of lesbian, transgender-leaning sexuality—the black Boys Don’t Cry, to speak in boxed-in terms. It’s an opportunity that the film, written and directed by Dee Rees (who expands her 2007 semi-autobiographical short of the same name), only half seizes, as hard-edged subculture access and scenes of tense honesty are punctuated throughout by the grating itch of pandering convention. Scenes like an introductory visit to a strip club that blasts Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” or a mortifying/freeing/funny first encounter with a strap-on unapologetically yank you into the confusing, wide-eyed world of half-closeted, 17-year-old Brooklynite Alike (Adepero Oduye), as well they should. But other scenes, like a poetry-reading session with a high school mentor, or a scanning of Alike’s best friend’s bedroom that reveals perfectly posed mens’ caps and a conveniently placed GED study guide, are generically, deliberately painted, and they represent an allover inconsistency that makes the film a constant tug of war between sincere discovery and familiar, watered-down drama.
A similar conflict cripples both of the film’s posters, one of which, nicknamed “Subway,” is the winner of a design contest that Focus Features hosted. Though ably conveying the sense of being troublingly adrift, “Subway” and its illustrative companion see their strength and inspiration dwindle, both of them far too reminiscent of the imagery from Precious, a movie from which this thematically and superficially similar project should be doing everything in its power to distinguish itself. Already using writing as its heroine’s creative escape hatch, Pariah also adopts a butterfly as its metamorphic symbol, and opts to use it in almost exactly the same way Precious did in one of its tamer one-sheets. “Subway,” meanwhile, instantly calls to mind one of Precious’s most popular production stills, another rendering of public transportation as a cursed vessel through the urban cage from which the butterfly must break free. “Subway” at least provides a classy and alluring expression of duality, its image of reflection set in the place where Alike trades her masculine night clothes for girly threads before returning home to her conservative mother (it also offers that handy definition, which basically doubles as its tagline).
But, then, drawing attention to duality also draws attention to the film’s own creative struggle, which unfortunately lessens its impact as an important work of gay fiction. As frequently un-doctored and plucked-from-life as the sequences depicting black lesbian youth often seem, they’re counteracted by such elements as Alike’s connection with a feminine classmate, a relationship that initially intrigues as a modern display of gay-straight friendship, but devolves into the typical plot-serving, use-and-abuse, bi-curious fling. And as warmly idiosyncratic (and ultimately poignant) as Alike’s family dynamic is shown to be, both of her parents are drawn as archaic stereotypes, especially her mother (Kim Wayans), whose conservatism may well be rampant in certain communities, but registers as an easy, antiquated way to challenge Alike’s sexual and personal freedom. In a sense, the posters are highly successful, as they very accurately communicate the text, weaknesses and all. But their recycled commonality leaves you with the same dissatisfaction the film does, for although Alike’s inevitable liberation from her cocoon feels deserved and hard-won, it doesn’t feel special.