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“Pariah” is one of those little gems that will stick with you long after you see the film.
The coming-of-age story is one that we all can relate to, although in this case “Pariah” also offers a rare cinematic glimpse into what it is like to be an African-American teenager from Brooklyn learning to embrace her lesbianism while hiding her emerging identity from her police officer father and pious mother.
The film debut of writer/director Dee Rees impressed audiences at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where “Pariah” had its world premiere. Since then, the film has been getting steady Oscar buzz as it slowly opens around the nation, including Friday, Jan. 6, at the Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego.
“Pariah” is an impressive expansion of Rees’ award-winning 2007 short film, also titled “Pariah.” Rees, who hails from Nashville, Tenn., comes with a good pedigree; she studied under filmmaker Spike Lee at New York University’s acclaimed graduate film school and later interned with him. As Rees and producer Nekisa Cooper were developing the expanded film, Lee signed on as executive producer and served as her mentor.
The original screenplay by Rees is compelling and universally appealing to any LGBT person who has struggled through the coming out process. The film's "subtitle" lists three definitions of pariah: 1. A person without status. 2. A rejected member of society. 3. An outcast. These three themes are a crucial part of the film as Rees taps into her own coming out experience and how her family had a difficult time accepting her as a lesbian.
What makes “Pariah” so special is that Rees' viewpoint is that of a 17-year-old girl of color named Alike (pronounced “ah-lee-kay”) who lives with her bickering parents (played by Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) and a younger sister (Sahra Mellesse) in the Fort Green neighborhood in Brooklyn. This is a part of the urban world that is foreign to Rees as well as many people in her audiences, yet so familiar in that we all go through the same struggle for tolerance, love and acceptance.
Adepero Oduye gives a breathtaking performance as Alike, the same role she played in the short film. She essentially plays two roles: the dutiful daughter hiding a secret from her family and the teenage lesbian exploring her butch side. The transitions between butch and fem, seen in the opening scenes, become a regular thing as Alike tries to please her parents by wearing girly clothing and yet satisfy her need for self-expression as a butch lesbian with short-cropped hair.
In her journey to self-identity, Alike longs for a girlfriend and finds the wrong woman (Pernell Walker), befriends a free spirit (Aasha Davis) who helps her along the path of sexual discovery, and agonizes on when to come out to her family.
The family friction builds to the point of a volcanic eruption as it becomes apparent that Alike’s parents have a shaky marriage. Her overprotective mother immerses herself in her faith as a way to soothe her loneliness and rejection from her husband, who is straying from his marriage vows. Wayans digs deep for the role, and creates a very believable character as the needy Audrey. Parnell plays a macho cop with a soft spot for his two teenage daughters and who shrugs off barbershop gossip that Alike likes girls.
The coming out scene is stunning and unexpected, but let’s not spoil the explosive drama that builds to a climax.
Kudos all around for the team surrounding Rees. The cinematography by Bradford Young, praised at Sundance, is jerky and stylish, giving it a documentary style. The film editing by Mako Kamitsuna adds to the mood Rees creates.
"Pariah" opens Friday, Jan. 6, at the Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego. The film, distributed by Focus Features, is rated R. For tickets, click HERE.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at email@example.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.