Dee Rees' debut feature, a coming-out drama expanding from her 2007 short of the same name, pivots on a 17-year-old Alike (Oduye, reprises the same role), an African-American girl maladroitly explores her inchoate sexuality against a stifling familial interference.
On paper, this précis is just like one of the numberless reiterations of its ilks, a bumpy journey of self-discovery, trepidation, excitement, and sorrow, mingled with temporal prejudice and religion-inflamed narrow-mindedness. But Dee Rees, against the story's well-trodden path (although, both her and Alike's ethnic attributes give its story an edge of freshness), lends Alike's bittersweet rite-of-passage a distinct flavor of probity and plausibility that refuses to sweet the pill.
Little doubt is cast on Alike's self-identification as a lesbian, the meat of her day-to-day battle is with the world around her, and pointedly with her family, Audrey (Wayans), her God-bothering mother high-handedly reproves her inappropriate get-up and choice of friend, her bestie is Laura (Walker), an out-and-out butch, masking her crush by ushering Alike to the local lesbian haunts. It is not in the strobing nightspot where Alike tastes the forbidden fruit for the first time, but ironically, it is through Bina (Davis), her mother's appointed friend, the daughter of her church-going coworker, Alike fully consummates her passion, yet the very next day, hits the rock bottom of a heartbreak, Bina's mood-swing is arguably, the weakest narrative linkage in the otherwise, slow-burned drama.
In due time, Alike's baptism of fire will reach the boiling point in a seminal climax when she comes out during her parents' escalating wrangle, the explosion is tempestuous and no easy reconciliation is attained afterward, but Alike, facilitated by her knack of writing, finally, she can throw off her guilt and secret, embrace a new lease on her life with resolution, she is "not running but choosing", a sagacious war cry to heighten the requisite of having a choice, for those marginalized and nonconformist.
While Dee Rees and her DP Bradford Young grace the story with a raw, restive energy that best encapsulates Brooklyn's milieu of black urban teenagers, Alike's story is sustained by its self-contained environs with exclusively non-white characters, no racial tension is broached, homophobia is pandemic, in home and elsewhere, but a touching note is that among younger generations, acceptance becomes the normalcy.
A factoid might completely knock one's socks off, Adepero Oduye is 33 when making this film and a further burrowing discovers that Aasha Davis, who plays her fellow high-schooler Bina, is born in 1973 (source from IMDb), it is sheer beggar belief that these actresses can pull off playing characters half their ages (a blessing bestowed to the race maybe), especially in the case of Oduye, animatedly effuses teen spirit and simmering angst in her breakthrough performance.
Among grown-ups there are also worthy players, although comparatively in a lesser extent, Charles Parnell (a younger-looking Keith David, anyone?) adeptly balances his benevolent father figure with his less savory image of a miffed and cheating husband as Arthur, Alike's father; then Kim Wayans, the mega-villain in this shoestring production, is another monstrous mother figure in the spirit of Monique is Lee Daniels' PRECIOUS (2009), less blustering but equally toxic and intractable.
A decisively unsentimental entry in the queer cinema and a resounding testing ground of Dee Rees' acumen and auteurist disposition, PARIAH is here to stay.
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