Written and Directed By: Dee Rees
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, and Kim Wayans
Director of Photography: Bradford Young, Editor: Mako Kamitsuna, Production Designer: Inbal Weinberg
Rated: R for the stuff that happens when you enter adulthood.
The glowing lights hang through the palette of Dee Rees’s Pariah, a coming of age and coming out story of a young girl in Brooklyn. These lights, lovingly shot by director of photography Bradford Young, are unfocused, always hanging in the distant. We’re not sure what they are—most likely just headlights of cars off in the distant—but there presence creates the longing of Pariah’s young protagonist, Alike, who knows there’s a better world out there for her, but never sure what it is.
Pariah on its premise feels like the typical fare released out of the Sundance Film Festival, and with the democratization of film (and more importantly, digital video), it can be tough to stay out of the pack and feel original. Especially with the breakout of Lee Daniels’s Precious only two years ago, Pariah’s urbanized environments and focus on a solely black culture give it a feeling that we’ve been here before, even if we haven’t. But there’s something that Ms. Rees, who based this story on her own young life, can’t have taken away from her, and that’s the authenticity in much of her narrative, and especially that of her young star Adepero Oduye.
Despite my initial reaction of remembering Precious, Ms. Rees’s narrative and her filmmaking strategy couldn’t be further from that misguided work. Pariah is made with total love for Alike, a young girl who hides her identity as a lesbian from her parents while spending time with a close friend that takes her to clubs to meet women. But Alike is still young and virginal, too scared to go home with anyone, and too scared to go home (she changes her clothes on the bus home to hide her true identity).
It’s easy to see why Alike can’t reveal herself. Her father (Charles Parnell, commanding but never over-the-top) is a police detective, more-or-less absent, and with little respect for his wife. Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is an overly concerned churchgoer with no patience for Alike’s choice of clothes. Audrey believes she can keep her family protected and boxed in to what society demands, fearing at any moment things will tare her family apart,
Of course, Alike is the ticking time-bomb waiting to happen, as she explores her sexuality and what she truly wants in life. Pariah is still at times a indie-film-paint-by-the-numbers narrative, which means only those of us who sit through way too many Sundance flicks will truly be annoyed. But Mr. Young’s gorgeous cinematography breathes a sweetness and life to many of the sequences, especially a couple of sequences at night club that explode with color and literally bring a shine to Alike’s world.
And Ms. Oduye has that young face that can capture that magic of uncertainty, as well as the fear, in so many sequences. Even during the film’s last third, which takes some turns for the sake of moving the story instead of moving the characters, Ms. Oduye’s often quiet and articulate body give so much of the character. There’s nothing showy about her performance, and even when she reads her poetry, Ms. Oduye brings an understated statement of honesty to her words. And if anything, Pariah is about honesty, both inside your head and outside to your world.