Review of “Pariah”

Pariah is an underdog film that won audiences over at Sundance 2011 and secured a coveted theatrical release by Focus Features. It will be hitting theaters in December, and you should see it.

(Spoilers ahead)

The main storyline centers on Alike (Adepero Oduye), a tomboy living in a middle class African American household in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. A virgin, she is only starting to navigate the lesbian scene and find her comfort zone as a queer woman of color. Alike isn’t sure if she wants to channel the hyper- masculine persona seen in underground urban queer dance clubs, which is encouraged by her streetwise and extroverted best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). She also doesn’t know if she wants to channel a softer, more artistic side, which is encouraged by her AP English teacher.

While her neighbors may be struggling with coming to terms with a more visible LGBT presence in the community, Alike’s high school appears to be relatively gay friendly, and LGBT lingo rolls off the lips of straight and questioning girls effortlessly. In one scene, Alike overhears a group of ostensibly straight women talking about “AGs“ or “aggressives,” a term commonly used in the African American LGBT community to denote butch or masculine lesbians. One of the girls suggests that she found some of the AGs cute, and she nods at Alike. The girl then makes a comment that, while she finds Alike attractive, she likes her AGs harder. This spurs Alike to run to her best friend Laura to obtain a strap-on dildo to wear underneath her clothes, an experiment that ends in embarrassment and a realization that the swaggering, masculine persona is an artifice that she isn’t comfortable with.

Meanwhile, Alike’s mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) is displeased that her daughter is spending her time with Laura, who she considers a bad influence. Audrey introduces Alike to the daughter of a friend from church, a bubbly and seemingly squeaky clean sprite named Bina (South of Nowhere alum Aasha Davis). At first Alike treats Bina as an irritating obstacle to her freedom, but Bina eventually wins her over by introducing her to the indie rock scene, where Bina tells Alike that she doesn‘t need to act or dress a certain way. “You can come as you are,” she tells Alike. The two grow closer, and Bina surprises Alike by broadening her world in unexpected ways.

Charles Parnell, who plays Alike’s father, and Adepero Oduye deliver fantastic and nuanced performances as father and daughter. While Alike’s overbearing mother disapproves of her tomboyish appearance and forces her to wear feminine attire, her father, a detective rapidly rising in the ranks of the NYPD, is much more understanding and allows Alike to express herself. Although it is apparent he knows that Alike is a lesbian, he never acknowledges it and simply defends her from her mother’s emotional outbursts and a neighbor’s homophobic rants without stating the obvious. Part of the reason why her father feels moved to protect her is that he understands how it is to engage in socially unacceptable activities. Granted, his secret is actually damaging and hurtful whereas Alike‘s is not — he is having an affair — but he understands that human behavior cannot always be controlled and placed into neat little boxes, a concept that Alike’s mother refuses to accept.

Instead of handholding the viewer through the plot, Pariah leaves some loose ends open, reflecting the ambiguities of real life. After all, there is no Greek chorus to give us insight on the drama happening all around us. After Bina and Alike have an intimate night together, Bina abruptly brushes off the encounter as just “playing around,” throwing Alike into an emotional tailspin. Was Bina exploiting Alike in order to experiment, or was she just not ready to confront the realities of coming out?

The buildup of their friendship seemed genuine. Alike was the one who dragged her feet, both in the beginning of their friendship and when things turned romantic. While Bina’s dismissal seemed overly abrupt, considering the undeniable chemistry between the two girls, viewers should look out for the short scene after the ill-fated encounter between Alike and Bina where a boy reaches in to kiss Bina, and Bina turns away from him, indicating that Bina is conflicted and that her reaction isn‘t just an implausible non-sequitur.

Likewise, the motivations and actions of Alike’s mother could have been fleshed out more, but the viewer can deduce that Alike’s mother, like many others, clings to the church for support where she lacks it elsewhere. She has no emotional support from her husband, who is obviously carrying on an extramarital affair, and even when he is around, he is cold, bordering on emotionally abusive. From her perspective, both husband and daughter appear to be conspiring against her. They are quite visibly harboring secrets, have an unspoken understanding to protect one another, have the same reticent personality traits, and share a bond that she is excluded from. She is a woman breaking apart at the seams, which explains a lot of her desperate, histrionic behavior. While her violent act against Alike is in no way justifiable, the outburst is not outside the realm of a believable human response, and criticisms that her character is two dimensional is unwarranted. The characters in this film, like people in real life, are flawed, and no one is a perfect saint or a perfect villain.

Comparisons to Precious were bound to happen, but they are misplaced. The main similarity between Pariah and Precious is that both films feature young African American females as leads, and while films carried by young African American females are few and far between, the stories are in no way analogous. While Precious punches you in the gut repeatedly, leaving you emotionally bruised and battered, Pariah, though it has its raw moments, unfolds with restraint, squeezing and pulling at your heart without breaking it.

Instead, writer/director Dee Rees‘s Pariah has more in common with the other lesbian-themed Sundance darling this year, Circumstance. Both films are about young women coming of age and exploring their sexual identity in less than welcoming conditions. Both protagonists encounter acute trauma as a result of expressing themselves in a repressive environment, such as imprisonment (Circumstance) and violence (Pariah). Both women have sympathetic fathers who try to protect them from the darker side of religious influences. Both women find solace in underground youth culture.

While some people lack the strength to live openly and prefer to remain caged by societal norms because it is more familiar and the path of least resistance, such as Shireen in Circumstance and to a lesser extent Bina in Pariah, the protagonists in both films, unlike their love interests, make the difficult and bold choice to step outside of the cage and live freely. While the endings of both films may seem begot from unfortunate circumstances, they are tinged with hope of a better life; while their safety nets may be gone, the girls can truly spread their wings and fly.

Pariah opens in select theaters December 28.

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