As the world awaits the next George Lucas blockbuster or lines up for the next sure shot romantic comedy, “Pariah,” a small but engrossing film open in theaters today, is definitely worthy of attention.
Written and directed by Dee Rees and executive produced by Spike Lee, “Pariah,” originally a short film, was a finalist for the 2009 Sundance/NHK International Award. The expanded feature film had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and was honored with the Festival’s (U.S. Dramatic Competition) Excellence in Cinematography Award (Bradford Young).
“Pariah” is the provocative coming of age story of 17-year-old Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay), a sweet, sensitive girl who does well in school and writes insightful, heartfelt poetry. Alike lives with her parents, Audrey (Kim Wayans) and Arthur (Charles Parnell) and her younger sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. While she adores her father, Alike’s mother, who calls her “Lee,” sees her older daughter as an incorrigible “tomboy,” and works overtime at turning her into a “girly-girl.”
Meanwhile, Alike is living a double life, having discovered and embraced her identity as a lesbian. While she dresses in men’s clothing (often changing clothes on the bus) and secretly frequents gay clubs with her best friend, “out” lesbian Laura (whom her mother can’t stand), Alike is still not quite comfortable in her own skin. The more she struggles to claim her identity, the more confused she becomes, and Audrey unwittingly complicates the issue even further when she encourages (forces) Alike’s friendship with Bina (Aasha Davis) the daughter of a co-worker. While Sharonda is aware of her big sister’s sexuality and is totally cool with it, Alike is constantly wrestling with the prospect of telling her parents — although on a certain level they are both aware that she is gay but are in denial about it.
“Pariah” is inspired by Rees’ personal experience, and she does an excellent job of handling this sensitive subject matter, particularly with a main character that is so young. This film could have become a pornographic spectacle, but in Rees’ hands it is the riveting personal journey of a girl who has made a life-changing discovery, but has no idea what to do with the information.
The talented Adepero Oduye delivers a brilliant portrayal of the confused Alike, who is sincerely looking for love, but simply doesn’t know whom to trust. Although Oduye is in her 30s, she is completely convincing as a 17-year-old high school student.
Kim Wayans, who is best known for her outrageous comedic escapades, was so deeply immersed in the role of angst-ridden Audrey that the film was almost at the half over before I recognized her.
While this fascinating film brings to light a sub-culture that may be unfamiliar to some, “Pariah” is basically a story of friendship, family and acceptance. (Rated “R”)