REVIEW: A Luminous Lead Performance and Sensitive Filmmaking Drive Pariah
On the bus home from a night out at a lesbian club, Fort Greene teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye) swaps her tomboyish outfit for earrings and a pink t-shirt, something clearly not of her own choosing, something selected to appease her mother. Alike is 17 and closeted, at least at home. Her mom Audrey (Kim Wayans) is uptight, religious and almost quivers with the effort of seeing her daughter as she wants her to be and not as she actually is. While Alike's closer to her father Arthur (Charles Parnell), a cop, he's chosen to step back from the tensions at home and in his marriage. Liking boys and makeup comes naturally to her younger sister Sharonda (Shamika Cotton) -- our heroine is alone in her own personal form of camouflage, trying to blend into the background wherever she goes.
What sets writer/director Dee Rees's sensitive feature debut Pariah (expanded from her 2007 short of the same name) apart from the standard coming out story is that Alike is just as much an outsider at the club as at home, adrift and uncomfortable while her more outgoing best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) picks up girls on the dance floor. She hasn't found the place in which she feels she can be herself. Alike knows that she's gay, but her understanding and acceptance of that fact doesn't mean she knows where she fits, in the scene or out of it -- she doesn't easily fall into the divisions of butch and femme, and she doesn't seems to do any better at school, where she's a good student in whose writing a teacher has taken a special interest, but other dangles outside the established social groups. Pariah is a coming of age story that's uncommonly aware of just how heartbreakingly important the trappings of fashion, of music choices, of hobbies are when you're young -- they're symbols of everything you think you are or aspire to be, even as they're woefully inadequate shortcuts to establishing your identity.
Alike's journey take place in a larger landscape of shifting identities -- just as the lesbian community isn't a monolithic entity, neither is the black neighborhood in which the majority of the action is set. Her family has worked its way into the middle class, and Audrey's consciousness of this achievement informs her stiffness around the coworkers she clearly feels she's a cut above and her overall fussy propriety. It's this sense of the type of people with whom her family belongs that leads her to insist Alike hang out with the daughter of an acquaintance from church, Bina (Aasha Davis), as if enough time in each other's proximity would make a friendship inevitable. Alike begrudgingly walks to school with Bina and hangs out with her on the weekends, and finds a connection with the girl she never expected, one that blossoms into a possible romance when Bina gives our heroine her first kiss. Bina's the opposite of Alike in many ways, bold where the latter is shy, but also uncertain where she's fully decided, and the halting tenderness with which their relationship builds is tinged with the knowledge that Bina is probably going to break her heart.
Pariah wouldn't work without Oduye's luminous performance, capturing the emotional nuances of a character not prone to letting her emotions show. She makes Alike's vulnerabilities clear through her defenses -- Alike's convinced she has the world fooled, but isn't anywhere near as in control as she'd like to believe. It's a lovely, subtle portrayal that's deservedly been getting a lot of attention for Oduye, who originated the role in Rees's short and who may also be familiar as the grocery store clerk Louis C.K. awkwardly follows home to try to ask out in the first season of Louie. It's a performance that good enough to smooth over the fact that the film's gears grind as it arrives at an ending that feels neat, with Alike finally confronting her parents and encountering the results we've been primed to expect from the outset.
Pariah is a small story of a painful, formative era in its protagonist's life, and it sometimes feels roughly hewn to fit into an arc it doesn't necessarily need. It's the intimate, unforced details -- an exchange between Arthur and his friends at a store, the way Laura chooses to shut Alike out after feeling betrayed by her new relationship -- that speak volumes more than the film's obvious butterfly metaphor, and that attest to a filmmaker and actress worth keeping an eye on.