'Pariah' is the feature length expansion of a short film created by Dee Rees, presented at the Sundance Festival in 2007. It's basically a coming of age story focusing on a middle-class, black Lesbian teenager, Alike, played by Adepero Oduye. The title 'Pariah', is a bit of a strong epithet to describe Alike's situation, as she's mainly an outcast in the eyes of her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), a devout Christian, who can't stomach the idea that her daughter is not really interested in men.
'Pariah' is uniformly well-acted with a slow-moving plot that holds few surprises. In fact, take away the black middle-class environment and you'd be left with pretty much your ordinary 'coming out' tale of a conflicted gay teenager. All the stock characters are there including the 'villain' of the piece, the aforementioned intolerant mother as well as the more sympathetic police detective father, Arthur, who's not crazy about his daughter's choice of sexual orientation but still holds a special place in his heart for 'daddy's girl'. Also in the mix is Alike's best friend, Laura, who enjoys hanging out at 'rough' Lesbian clubs but eventually decides to get her GED. While Alike still enjoys a bond with one parent, Laura is not on speaking terms with her mother, who shows no interest when Laura rings her doorbell and informs her that she's passed her GED.
Eventually, Alike's Mom introduces her to Bina, the daughter of one of her colleagues at work (strikingly played by Aasha Davis). The Mom finds Bina much more acceptable since she comes from a more upper class environment than what she regards as the lower class world Laura comes from. Bina invites Alike over to her house and makes it clear that she's interested in having an intimate encounter. At first Alike admits the proposition makes her uncomfortable but on a 'second date', the proposed tryst is consummated. The twist is that Bina is merely bi-curious and Alike is sorely disappointed that she won't be having an extended relationship with her for the foreseeable future. Alike's reaction is predictable: a full-scale meltdown where she trashes her own room.
'Pariah' concludes also on a predictable note. Alike's Mom again chastises her for disappearing and then the parents argue over the mother's suspicion that the father has been having an affair. Alike declares her independence when she reveals to her father that she's been accepted into a creative writing program and asks his permission to sign papers so she can leave home.
I suspect that deep down, 'Pariah' has garnered so many accolades not because it's a great film, but precisely because critics wish to encourage the film's creator, Ms. Rees, who apparently has much more talent as a director than a screenwriter. In terms of the writing, perhaps Ms. Rees' strongest suit is dialogue, which has a realistic, gritty feel to it. I also liked her choice of alternative rock for the soundtrack, instead of loud, rap music, which is the type of music one would expect to find in a drama of this kind.
'Pariah' is a well-crafted first feature effort. You'll find very good acting here and a story that will pretty much hold your interest to the end. Nonetheless, I didn't find myself invested enough in the protagonist's journey to end up raving about the film as so many others have done. By film's end, with Alike's decision to branch off on her own, my reaction was, "okay, that's nice!" In essence, the filmmaker is saying that those who have been ostracized in society need to go forward in spite of all the criticism. But most young people must go through obstacles in order to achieve independence. Were Alike's difficulties in 'coming of age', that much different than other teenagers? Not really. Hence, I didn't feel I was watching something so 'different' or 'out of the ordinary'. It's up to Ms. Rees to next take on a project that goes beyond the world that she knows so well about and is comfortable with.
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