Film Review: Pariah

Dee Rees' funny, deep and tender film about black lesbians definitely earns a place in screen history: a first in many ways, so rich and so beautifully done.

Saying Pariah is original could well be the understatement of the cinematic year: Dee Rees’ debut feature delves into the largely unfamiliar world of black lesbians living their lives in New York City in the 21st century with such emotionally unerring incisiveness that, for many viewers, this may well feel like an anthropological exploration into some very uncharted territory. This is not your scrubbed-clean Ellenville or the calculatedly inexact, glammed-up lipstick-lesbian world feeding the fantasies of a few Hollywood moguls to whet the salacious tastes of “adventurous” hetero audiences. No, what we have here is strictly the real deal, warts and all, and quite startlingly beautiful to behold.

Alike (Adepero Oduye) is an aspiring writer definitely drawn to women, but who feels a misfit wherever she is, whether it’s a dyke club, the roistering halls of her high school or her relatively cloistered but tense family life she shares with pesky younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), cop father Arthur (Charles Parnell) and highly conservative mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), Her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) is far more experienced in the queer world than she is and tries to school her, but Laura is also less educated and motivated than Alike. Audrey highly disapproves of this butch dyke coming around the house and encourages Alike to pal around with Bina (Aasha Davis), the more feminine daughter of an acquaintance. Mama’s plan backfires when, unbeknownst to her, Bina and Alike become involved, and, additionally, there is always that ticking time bomb of Alike’s inevitable coming out to her.

From the first frames of the movie, set in that girls’ bar, pounding with the sounds of a profane club song extolling the joys of cunnilingus, Rees bravely throws you right into the schizophrenic maelstrom of Alike’s life. She’s a born filmmaker, and the screen fairly throbs with youthful energy as well as the sensual, often heartbreakingly funny mysteriousness of Alike’s self-discovery. Rees is also a born humanist, and the ring of truth here stems from the fact that she writes complex characters, filled with shadings and complexities and surprise. Alike and Laura’s relationship is especially well-observed in its mercurial nature, with sudden enmity just as easily turning into closeness again. And then there’s that hilarious dildo scene, which will have jaws dropping everywhere, but with all of its outrageousness, nonetheless has classic roots in the comic backfiring of the youthful antics seen in such as the old Andy Hardy and Our Gang films.

Rarely has any American gay-themed film looked so good and, with the help of her terrifically on-point cinematographer, Bradford Young, Rees creates myriad worlds here, from the slightly dangerous, pulsing intimacy of the club and pier where the girls hang out, to Alike’s very mundane home, to the vivid hues and lighter atmosphere of Bina’s bedroom which provide safe harbor, for a while. Rees keeps things tight and dark, slowly widening and brightening out until the final release in a sun-filled rooftop scene involving Alike, her father and Laura in which so many truths finally, liberatingly, are revealed.

A cannily selected music score also effectively informs the emotional journey, laced with everything from gritty hip-hop of Laura’s space to the deep soul balladry Alike prefers, and Bina’s indie rock, which represents some of the new directions Alike will move in.
Oduye is definitely appealing and quite chameleonic in Alike’s transitions from an ever-present self-protective guardedness to, when at ease, a sudden, dazzlingly lovely smile which completely transforms her, but there is a decided uncertainty in the performance at times, which somehow keeps it from being wholly realized. The rest of the acting is, however, faultless. The devastatingly likeable Walker has a deliciously sexy Errol Flynn swagger, playing cards and shooting the shit, with her latest honey happily hanging onto her, along with moments of piercing tenderness. (Laura is secretly in love with Alike.) Davis acts with an equally ingratiating antic freshness the part of a surprising sexual dabbler, who, also surprisingly, breaks Alike’s heart.

With his fetching, deep voice, Parnell has a beautiful authority and suggestiveness, somewhat reminiscent of our current President, easily believable as a dad daughters would worship, as well as a certain potent mystery. (Who is at the other end of those mysterious, upsetting phone calls he makes at home?) But the real revelation in the cast is Wayans, so funny on so many seasons of “In Living Color.” Who knew that lurking in the bones of this wonderfully uninhibited comedienne there was also an actress powerful and moving enough to make you understand Audrey, even in her staunch homophobia, as a nevertheless highly devoted mom, just trying to do the best she can?