Friday, January 13, 2012

PARIAH Rises Above

PARIAH Review:

- Pariah is a striking, powerful, emotion-packed film. It's also a hugely impressive debut from writer/director Dee Rees. The movie is a character piece, an examination of a young, African-American girl's struggle to embrace the fact that she is a lesbian. But, the film is shot in a way that's both naturalistic yet also heightened. There's a real feel of authenticity at work here (perhaps stemming from the autobiographical elements that Rees imbued the film with). And that feeling of peering into this world and living with these characters made Pariah moving and entertaining and also attention-grabbing. Even if you've had your fill of serious message movies in recent months, I'd say make room for one more, as Pariah is well worth checking out.

Pariah tells the story of Alike, a high schooler who has dipped her toes into the water of living a lesbian lifestyle. She's by no means openly gay - and is guarded about things in front of her concerned parents. But she hangs out with a lesbian clique outside of school, and is beginning to express herself in a way that's more true to who she really is. This manifests in everything from the poetry she composes for school to the way she dresses. Her parents are her biggest source of stress and self-doubt. Her mother in particular suspects that her daughter might be gay, but would be devastated if it were so. Church-going and rather close-minded, Alike's mother feels that her life is coming apart at the seams. Aside from Alike, her younger daughter is becoming a teenager and becoming older, sassier, and more rebellious. And her husband - a cop - is quite possibly having an affair with another woman. Alike's father is actually one of the film's more interesting characters. On one hand, he is more supportive of Alike and open-minded about her identity. On the other hand, he is helping to facilitate a miserable atmosphere in his home - sneaking out late at night, endlessly engaged in shouting matches with his wife. Meanwhile, Alike's friend Laura is even worse off - her mother kicked her out of the home when she discovered that her daughter was a lesbian. So now, Laura is living with her older sister and trying to get her G.E.D. Her mom won't acknowledge her existence. All this, plus: Laura may harbor a crush on Alike - and their relationship becomes increasingly strained when Alike meets someone else (a girl who, ironically, her mother introduced her to in an effort to set her straight).

Actress Adepero Oduye is a revelation as Alike. Her acting feels incredibly naturalistic, to the point where sometimes you almost feel like you're watching a documentary. That said, Oduye also shines when the script calls upon her to deliver some big, emotional moments. Oduye has an infectious smile that makes us happy when Alike succeeds, and she also renders certain scenes as incredibly heart-breaking - especially those that highlight her fractured relationship with her mother.

Speaking of which - whoah - Kim Wayans is pretty amazing as Audrey, Alike's mom. Best known for her comedic roles on shows like In Living Color, the Wayans sister shows some real dramatic range as a woman who teeters on the edge of breakdown. Charles Parnell is also fantastic as Alike's father, Arthur. Arthur is a really interesting character as well - a cop who is concerned for his daughter but also accepting of her. We also are left to wonder a bit about his infidelity - yes, he's hurting his family, but we can also see that his marriage to Audrey hasn't been an easy one. Pernell Walker as the rough-around-the-edges Laura is also really, really good. I also liked Aasha Davis as Bina, the pixie-ish girl who Alike falls for. It's a great cast overall - everyone is really doing A-level work here.

I guess my one qualm with the movie is that it's just too straightforward and by-the-numbers. There are very few surprises here, and the film never really deviates from its basic coming-of-age template. I kept waiting for some twists or turns that would shake up the story and make it a bit more memorable or distinct, but just about every trope here is standard-issue for this type of film. Now, few films are able to tell this kind of story with such a great cast and such a feeling of authenticity. But I guess I just wanted the film to truly take things to that next level. As is, Pariah is sort of a jolt of a movie - brisk, powerful, and then ... that's it. The narrative doesn't really go to any particularly unexpected places.

Overall though, Pariah is a really good film. It shines a light on a particular subculture in America that's got it really tough, and is only now starting to emerge from the shadows. It's an inspiring story about a girl who's able to rise above intolerance and forge a path for herself. To some extent, anyone can relate to the idea of breaking free of expectations and finding your own way, and that's what Pariah is all about. Like I said, even if it's now 2012, I think we've got to make room for one more excellent film in the 2011 cannon.

My Grade: B+

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