“Pariah” adds humor to the coming-out story.

26 Jan

“Black.”  “Lesbian.”  “Coming-of-age.”  In a recent interview, writer and director Dee Rees quips that these are three words not to say in a pitch meeting.

Thank goodness, then, for the festival circuit, where Rees’ 2007 short film, Pariah, won a host of awards, gaining recognition from the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Chicago Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, and many others.  With the backing of producers such as Nekisa Cooper and Spike Lee, Rees was able to expand the short into a feature-length film released by NBC Universal’s Focus Features.

Pariah follows high school senior Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay, played by Adepero Oduye) as she juggles different personas in her day-to-day life in order to meet the expectations of her family and peers, most of whom want her to be someone she is not.  Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is determined to turn her oldest daughter to be a church-going young lady dressed in feminine blouses and skirts.  Her best friend and fellow lesbian, Laura (Pernell Walker), takes her to strip clubs and tries to teach her how to dress “butch.”  But to Alike, neither choice feels true.  At home in neither the straight nor the queer world, Alike must find her own way of being.

Despite the tug-of-war surrounding Alike’s identity, the film functions mostly as an exploration of the difficulties of love, both familial and romantic.  Through a friendship with a girl named Bina (Aasha Davis), Alike is able to be more herself.  Still, the film is careful not to privilege homosexual romance as some utopian space removed from the problems inherent in human relationships. Not only must Alike navigate the negative social reactions to her lesbianism, but she must also face the confused signals, disappointments, and frustrations that are as common in homosexual romances as they are in heterosexual ones.

One thing that is to be regretted is that the film’s trailer and title give no hint of the bright humor that breathes such life into this film.  Largely because of this humor, the film is able to examine the coming-out process without falling into the didactic, victimhood-mode that pervades many stories about bigotry.  A family dinner scene brings out the jocular, affectionate nature of Alike’s home life, as father Arthur (Charles Parnell) explains to his younger daughter Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) that she will absolutely not be having sex with her prom date.  Another set of scenes involving Alike’s attempt to attract a girlfriend by wearing a strap-on under her pants exploits the hilarity involved in teenage experimentation with sex, dating, and the assorted accessories that come along with adulthood.

Though this is a story about homophobia within the family, the thing that sets it apart is its commitment to gray areas with regard to its characters.  There are no evil homophobic monsters here.  What Pariah offers are characters who are doing the best they can under the circumstances, especially when it comes to mother Audrey’s expectations for her daughter.  For Audrey, Alike’s lesbianism contributes to her larger suspicion that her family is spiraling out of her control.  Her husband’s probable infidelity is hinted at so subtly that the viewer comes to sympathize with Audrey, even as she is desperately trying to force a false identity on to her daughter.

The well-rounded nature of the supporting characters makes Pariah’s world seem all the more genuine and true-to-life.  Flannery O’Connor once wrote that when she first showed her stories to a reader, the woman said to her: “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.”  Raised in Nashville, Dee Rees seems to share the Southern writer’s knack for authenticity, as her film evokes in viewers this same feeling of recognition.

Credit for this must go also to the film’s excellent performances.  Charles Parnell exudes a warm, fatherly charm, and it’s easy to see why he has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor, an honor bestowed upon the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson.  Bina is played by Aasha Davis, of Friday Night Lights.  At 38 years old, Davis is quite capable of delivering a convincing portrayal of a high school student, proving herself to be one exceptionally versatile actress.  But it is Adepero Oduye whose name was catapulted into prime-time when Meryl Streep mentioned Oduye in her speech accepting the Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic motion picture.  “What about Adepero Oduye?” Streep asked, after noting that she was embarassed to win the award in a year of so many stellar female performances.  All of Pariah‘s viewers will be struck by the way in which Oduye exudes surface vulnerability and quiet, inner strength all at once.  It remains to be seen whether she will score an Oscar nomination, but she has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.

Overall, movie-goers are lucky that Focus Features has given a wider audience to the story that Dee Rees wanted to tell.  Hopefully, Pariah‘s success will ensure that the words “Black,” “lesbian,” and “coming-of-age” may come to be more acceptable in pitch meetings.

Final Verdict:  Pariah infuses new life into the “coming-of-age” form with solid, well-crafted characters and a story that is heart-warming, inspiring, and much funnier than expected.

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