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Awesome: 42.86%
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2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"Should be welcomed by all."
5 stars

Films about contemporary youth are tricky things; as much as many filmmakers would like to make a great one, it's a rare thing for a filmmaker to be both close enough in age to the teenage characters of a story like this to have a clear view inside their heads and have honed their skills enough to tell the story this well. So the word done by Dee Rees here is even more impressive; she's managed to make a pretty fantastic film despite not being much older than her main character.

That character is Alike "Lee" Freeman (Adpero Oduye), a seventeen-year-old girl from Brooklyn with good grades, an interest in poetry, and a family that has its frictions but is more intact than many. The latest and largest source of that friction is Laura (Pernell Walker), a dropout that Alike has been spending a lot of time with; she likes other girls and from what they do when hanging out together, it looks like Alike is starting to lean in that direction. Alike's father Arthur (Charles Parnell) avoids the issue, but mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) decides to lay down the law, banning Laura from the house and insisting Alike walk to and from school with Bina (Aasha Davis), a nice young lady from their church.

The obvious place to start when talking about this movie is Adpero Oduye, who is close to perfect as Alike. Part of it is her look; she's just androgynous enough in appearance to potentially register as a boy in the low-lit opening scenes where she's wearing bulky, shapeless clothes, signalling early on that this isn't a phase, but that she isn't like most girls. A larger part, though, is the attitude she brings to the character; Alike can be a sullen, combative teen, but there's a large part of her that is not truly cynical yet. She's smart both inside and outside the classroom, and her self-awareness makes the character more interesting; we can see that she recognizes the sort of isolation she's heading for.

The film doesn't rest entirely on her back; the supporting cast is actually quite good. Oduye, Parnell, Wayans, and Sahra Mellesse (as younger sister Sharonda) feel like a family from the first time we meet them, with plenty of existig issues and connections appearing in a perfectly natural way. Parnell's Arthur and Wayans's Audrey, whose marriage is already strained as the movie starts, are an intriguing pair of opposites: Audrey is proactive but inflexible, just incapable of understanding how she's becoming the villain, while Arthur doesn't so much have different beliefs as he refuses to make a principled stand where his daughter is concerned. Parnell makes it clear that Arthur is actively refusing to see what's in front of his face.

As much as the cast and filmmakers seem to do a great job of capturing what it's like to be a young, gay, African-American woman or one of the people around her - the details ring true, even if the descriptors don't apply - where I think Rees truly shines is with the relationships at the center of the movie, which do have something universal to them: Laura is more of a mentor to Alike than an actual partner, and it's worth noting that pretty much everything we learn about her has to do with her sexual orientation, and that's clearly not enough for Alike, who is drawn to someone with whom she has more in common. For many movies, that might be enough, or they might have rejection send Alike realize that Laura is the one for her. Rees, though, handles it with more nuance, effectively making the case that nobody is defined by just one thing - but when that one thing can be a pretty big deal, especially when someone else treats it cavalierly. It's something that perhaps works best with gay characters, but it works for more than that.

Getting that bit at the core right makes it much easier to forgive its roughness in other places - the end is a bit of a fortunate escape hatch, for instance. Just by the nature of the story, a lot of the most crucial scenes are shot in dark environs on grainy film stock (or digital processed to look like it), which obscures the climax a bit. The size of a number of locations limits where the camera can go. The filmmakers work within those limits very well, though; even when the physical barriers aren't there, they keep the same tight, restricted look and feel without going overboard.

And that's important; "Pariah" is a movie about how kids like Alike feel now, not how they remember feeling filtered through later experience. Dee Rees does an exceptional job of getting the audience into Alike's head and life, and it's all the more interesting for lacking much exaggeration or other distortion.

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originally posted: 01/27/12 01:42:45
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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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