A journey both fresh and familiar
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan. 6, 2012
If there's anything negative about "Pariah," it would be that title, which sends the unfortunate signal that audiences are in for a difficult sit: one of those dark movies that, with apologies to "30 Rock," will be Hard to Watch.
Instead, this invigoratingly fresh, optimistic film - which features the breathtaking debuts of director Dee Rees and leading lady Adepero Oduye - plunges the audience into a world that's both tough and tender, vivid and grim, drenched in poetry and music and pain and discovery. In other words, "Pariah" feels a lot like life, at its most confusing, contradictory and exhilarating.
Oduye plays Alike (ah-LEE-kay), a 17-year-old high school student living in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood and trying to navigate the usual social and family tensions that plague most restless American teenagers. But Alike confronts an extra obstacle: She's gay, which places her outside the norms of the black community, many of her adolescent peers and mostly her own family.
Alike's mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is a devout Christian and submerges her suspicions about her daughter under prodding advice about appropriate friends and good hair; her father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), is loving but distant, distracted by his own secrets.
If Alike has trouble coming out at home, she's just as confounded by a gay community defined by "AGs" (aggressive girls) and their girlier counterparts for whom sexuality is little more than a fashion statement.
Alike's best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker, in another stunning debut), sports the baggy pants and macho demeanor of the former, but that's not how Alike rolls. Within the first several minutes of "Pariah," when Alike rides the bus home from a nightclub and uneasily trades a rakish cap for a pair of ill-fitting earrings, it's clear that she is used to assuming situational personae. It's equally clear that she's ready to claim a new, authentic sense of self.
Rees, who conceived "Pariah" while she was working as an intern for Spike Lee, captures the angst and brimming brio of Alike's journey with extraordinary sensitivity and observant wit, infusing an otherwise familiar coming-of-age tale with humor, style and an ear for dialogue and music that grounds the movie in street-wise verisimilitude.
Like "Medicine for Melancholy" in 2008, "Pariah" tells the story of an African American protagonist trying to forge an identity across cultural vernaculars, whether by way of clothing, girlfriends or music. (Alike's jams run the gamut from punk to indie-alternative to hip-hop.)
"Pariah's" frank, unfettered view of female sexuality recalls Lee's own breakout film, "She's Gotta Have It." ("She's Gotta Have Her," anyone?) Another movie "Pariah" invites comparison to is "Precious," in which another intrepid young heroine finds elusive self-worth through learning. Unlike that film, which some viewers considered a showcase for dismaying stereotypes about black pathology and poverty, "Pariah" presents a sorely needed view of an intact middle-class black family that, while deeply flawed, forms a solid and caring foundation for Alike's most discomfiting explorations.
In fact, no community in "Pariah" is presented as monolithic, one of the great strengths of a film that celebrates self-definition as a mutable, fluid, continually dynamic process.
The embodiment of that principle is Alike herself, who, as channeled by the luminous Oduye, emerges as an unforgettable heroine: smart, self-aware, sweetly vulnerable but steely enough to take her place at the table.
All she needs to decide is where to sit, a choice that "Pariah" chronicles with a strong, clear vision and a bracingly articulate voice.
Contains sexual content and profanity.