Alike's smile could stretch from California to Florida. It's a grin so infectious that you would never guess that, underneath her bubbliness, is a great deal of hurt. She is a lesbian, and has known so for years, but is afraid to admit it, both to herself and her dysfunctional family. Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay) is only able to act like herself around her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who is openly gay, extroverted, and unafraid to speak her mind. She idolizes how comfortable Laura is in her own skin, but isn't so sure that her personal dream to be who she really is will ever become reality.
It's understandable. Everyone around Alike is aware of her sexual orientation, but they aren't overt about it. Her parents, grumpy policeman Arthur (Charles Parnell) and the conservative Audrey (Kim Wayans), have put two and two together, but uttering the eventual four might cause an eruption of disbelief. Alike wants to break free from the clutches of the closet she is shackled to, and Pariah is a snapshot of that prison break. With her 4.0 GPA and stirring demeanor, she will, no doubt, succeed in life — yet this small window of her 18th year feels like an eternity to this charismatic young woman.
Pariah is a coming-of-age story of sorts, but unlike its sappy peers it has something real, something rousing. Its story could be applied to anyone's life, regardless of sexuality, because it is a film that magnifies that awkward transition in high school where the kid starts to realize that their adult wings are sprouting while their parents, in denial, want to clip them so they can have their precious baby safely in their nest for just a few more years. In Alike's case, that evolution is infinitely more dramatic. She is close to becoming the woman she's always wanted to be, but in order to do so she must come out to her friends and family. It could destroy the comfortable repression that hangs over her life, but if she doesn't, she'll be someone else's version of Alike while the real one is confined to a psychological jail cell.
Dee Rees, in her directorial debut, handles Pariah with sensitivity and a strong sense of affection that makes us care deeply about Alike's struggle with her identity. It's a semi-autobiographical work for Rees, and the result is something even more intimate than the best of memoirs. The film is directed with a flair for color and soul, accenting its walls with flavorful music and ripening the developments of its characters by giving us a chance to get to know them individually. Alike's story resonates with such power because Rees takes the time to study the people she will eventually come out to, spending scenes with them so that we can consider their ticks, their neuroses. If it were made by another filmmaker, perhaps Alike's parents would come across as the typical over- reactionary adults that befall movies with a similar premise. Not here. Rees is so delicate with her characters that even the harshest of a reaction rings with sympathy because we know, and, more importantly, understand, the reason for it.
But of course, Pariah's tear-jerking sensibilities wouldn't have the same potency without Adepero Oduye, who portrays Alike with virulent sweetness. Subjects of a coming-of-age film frequently flutter about in copycatted air, slightly awkward, needing an adult for guidance. Oduye, though, isn't an ordinary actress, and Pariah isn't an ordinary film. As Alike, authenticity comes naturally; she is not so much acting here and she is becoming her character. There isn't a need for an Oscar-begging freakout to prove just how wonderful of a performance this is: Oduye's painless likability makes the urgency of Alike's dilemma all the more heartrending.
When she experiences her first heartbreak, we cry with her. When she gets accepted into a prestigious college program, we cheer with her. Pariah is moving in a number of ways; few films are as ardent as this one.
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