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2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"An auspicious debut for writer/director Dee Rees."
4 stars

Talk about a movie earning its title. Taking a black teenage lesbian as its subject, “Pariah” thrives on marginalized sub-cultures, at least in theory. In reality, it’s about none of these things specifically, or at least it felt that way to me (and, to be fair, I am about as far removed from that particular experience as is possible); instead, this is used as sort of a Macguffin-esque springboard to explore the anxiety of being an outcast amongst your peers and family.

This is the point where I bore you with empty, obvious words like “transcendent” and “universal,” but, hey, “Pariah” earns those high school English class platitudes due to writer/director Dee Rees’s genuine voice and Adepero Oduye’s magnificent performance. She’s Alike, a 17-year old girl who excels in school (especially English class) and is in the midst of accepting her own lesbianism with the help of her friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who is also gay. Alike commits her struggle to words that she sometimes shares with her accepting teacher, but she’s kept it hidden from her parents, particularly her pious mother (Kim Wayans) who desperately denies her own suspicions by writing it all off as a tomboyish phase.

It’s anything but that, though, as, by the time we meet Alike, she’s already frequenting all girl nightclubs. That’s actually where we come in on the action, and it’s sort of lurid scene, scored by some vulgar and sexually explicit music that’s a bit off-putting initially. However, the cold opening reflects where Alike is at the time--she knows what she desires and is working towards exploring it physically. Much of the first act revolves around her attempt to find a girlfriend and the sexual contact that would entail.

As the film wears on, this seemingly becomes less of a concern, as Alike is remarkably attuned to the desire to make a real connection with someone. She unexpectedly finds that companionship when her mother introduces her to a co-worker’s daughter; ironically enough, she does this so Alike will stop hanging out with Laura, which backfires terribly for both of them when it climaxes in one of the many gut punches Alike endures over the course of the film.

The biggest one comes, as you might expect, in a big, emotional showdown where she must finally confront her parents. They’ve spent much of the film bickering with each other, with the mother being especially paranoid over the father’s potential infidelity, which is an unfounded suspicion likely driven by her alienation from her daughter. When all of this boils over, it’s about as intense a scene as you’ll see this year; a completely raw torrent of loathing and anguish, it’s heartbreaking and free of melodramatic pandering.

And somehow, it gives way to more disturbing, quieter scenes; while the physical abuse Alike suffers is of course reprehensible and unforgivable, it’s a product of spontaneously unloosed passion. In contrast, the psychological and emotional barbs delivered by her mother are cold and calculating. In many ways, the film is somehow about avoiding this fate and somehow keeping this family afloat. We see in Laura the other extreme possibility--her mother won’t even speak to her or her sister, even when she shows up at her front door with the news that she’s acquired her GED.

I wanted to see them somehow overcome their respective differences. Their early scenes together brim with warmth, and everyone involved does a fine job with bringing a human element to some rather trite character types (the father is a tightly wound cop, for example). Oduye is the star in the center and gives a strikingly mature performance that doesn’t rely on huge theatrics. She’s more nuanced than that and is able to convey vulnerability (the catch in her voice during some of the film’s more dramatic scenes is quite affecting), anger, and, eventually, resolve.

Discovering that strength is obviously one of the major engines driving “Pariah,” which ultimately doesn’t illuminate a whole lot on this kind of experience. That’s okay, though, as Rees comes from an authentic place here, and the film emits a certain intangible quality that lets you know it’s close to its creator. In a film about confession and choosing (not running), “Pariah” feels reflective of that, as it’s delivered with the perceptive insight of John Hughes and the raw power of Toni Morrison. Maybe those are a couple of boring, obvious comparisons too, but you can certainly do worse.

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originally posted: 01/10/12 08:49:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/25/18 morris campbell potent & sad 4 stars
3/08/13 David Hollingsworth A stunning debut for Dee Rees. 4 stars
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  28-Dec-2011 (R)
  DVD: 24-Apr-2012


  DVD: 24-Apr-2012

Directed by
  Dee Rees

Written by
  Dee Rees

  Adepero Oduye
  Pernell Walker
  Kim Wayans
  Charles Parnell
  Aasha Davis

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