Film Review – Pariah
Sometimes, the beauty of smaller or independent films is that they are populated by characters that feel more tangible than those of big Hollywood films. The achievement of Dee Rees’s film Pariah (2012) is through the believability of its main character. Adepero Oduye, who plays Alike (Ah-Lee-Kay), is so tender and sincere with her performance that it seems as though she were picked up right off the streets and placed in front of the camera. She is so natural here, never gesturing towards the audience or making it known that what we are watching is an “act.” Instead, she breathes and lives her character with an element of truth; not at any moment did I feel any kind of falsehood. Too many lesser actors would strain—trying too hard to gain an effect from the viewer. Oduye doesn’t do that with Alike, she just…is.
Alike is a high school teenager living in Brooklyn, New York. Her life is not unlike other kids her age. She’s shy, nervous, and self-conscious. She likes to go out with friends often but is aware to stay out of trouble. At school, she’s a promising student, getting As on tests and having a taste for poetry. After class, she visits her teacher to help her develop her writing skills. There seems to be a lot of bright things ahead for this young person, but one thing keeps her down with a fear that it could lead to her life falling apart. The secret Alike tries to hide is the fact that she’s a lesbian. Although, it seems as though this “secret” is known to just about everyone, including her friends and family. When she goes out, Alike likes to dress in boys’ clothes, with a cap fitted neatly on her head. On some nights, she goes out to an all-female strip club with her friend Laura (Pernal Walker), who is also a lesbian. When she is away from her family is when Alike feels most like herself, but when she comes home she has to sneak in and quickly change to more “feminine” attire before her parents catch her.
What a difficult thing it must be, to hide your true self not from your friends and classmates, but from the very people you call your family. I couldn’t possibly guess the kind of courage it takes for one to out themselves, and it’s clear that that fear resides heavily with Alike. This is partly to do with the fact that her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), stubbornly tries to force her to become more of what she thinks is a proper “woman”—dresses, pink-colored clothing, and so on. Audrey even goes to the point of checking up on Alike and having her interact with friends who are straight, as if their sexual orientation will somehow rub off on her. I don’t think Audrey to be a terrible person, though—just very confused. I believe it’s clear that Audrey cares about Alike and wants the best for her; she isn’t a cruel mother. In fact, the film goes to a certain length to show that she is a hardworking nurse who wants the best for her family; she just doesn’t know where Alike is coming from or how to handle it.
Alike and Audrey are two examples of how this film attempts to portray real people instead of archetypes. With a drama such as this, it would be very easy for some characters to fall into certain stereotypes (and there are a few here), but I liked how Rees (who also wrote the film) tries to round out their characterizations. Alike’s father Arthur (Charles Parnell) could have easily fallen into the “tough as nails/always out working/possibly sneaking around” type of figure, but he feels more than that. He’s a tough, weather-worn police officer, but not because he was simply written to be that way. Arthur obviously has issues with Audrey that aren’t specifically spelled out, but we sense that he is a good (although flawed) man who loves his children, even when one’s apparent sexuality draws sneers from the locals.
Another character that stands out is Alike’s best friend, Laura. Being a lesbian as well, Laura has gone through the same emotional journey that Alike currently goes through. To build upon that, I would have liked to see more of Laura’s story built up, because I found her to be just has fascinating as our protagonist. Laura has run away from home and left school to work and make money. She lives with and cares for her sister, who is also working to become a nurse. Laura doesn’t fall into the framework of what we would assume a college dropout to be—she didn’t do it because she hates school or is lazy, but because of her circumstances she does what she needs to do simply to survive. And like Alike fears, Laura’s lifestyle has drawn resentment from her family, and in one of the best scenes of the film, Laura has an encounter with her mother on her family’s doorstep. This is a very well acted and directed scene, minimal in what is actually said but extensive in what it conveys.
While the film has many good things going for it, I did feel that there were a few stumbling blocks. Some of them are minor—I wish the cinematography didn’t have the usual small budget/indie film/handheld style. There were moments where the frame shook so badly that I couldn’t see the performances of the actors. A few issues were more apparent, and I believe this was mostly due to the writing. For a drama such as this, there was the risk of it moving to a melodrama of the bad sort, and I did feel it went dangerously too close to that line. There were times were choices and character motivations suddenly shifted, which to me felt as though they were written in such a way as to manipulate an emotional reaction from the viewer. I don’t mind a certain kind of manipulation in a film if the context is appropriate, but in a movie where the characters are supposed to feel real, particular choices felt as though they were reaching when they didn’t have to. Two specific elements involve Bina (Aasha Davis), a fellow classmate Alike is introduced to and starts to develop feelings toward, and Audrey herself. For Bina, we are led to believe that she is a specific kind of character with a specific kind of connection with Alike, but her motivations change drastically without any kind of discernible transition.
In the case of Audrey, for the entire length of the movie she is presented as a character with negative characteristics but also worth a good amount of sympathy. But then she shifts with actions I don’t find to be believable. I just don’t see her choices to be truthful or realistic to her character, and that they were only put in to illicit a reaction. That’s not to say that what happens doesn’t happen in real life, because it does. However, Audrey’s character development does not seem fluid. To me, I feel that result is due to her being written in an unfair way—she was at first seen to be a well-rounded character but then refutes her initial set-up in the final act. Take the dynamic between her and Alike and compare to Laura and her mother, and judge for yourself which you feel is more effective.
But with those issues aside, the aspects that make Pariah good are very well handled and executed. There’s no denying the fact that Adepero Oduye gives a very fine performance, hopefully this will help her see bigger roles in the future. For Dee Rees, this is her feature length film debut, and though I think that shows a little bit in the finished product, I think she has a promising career ahead of her as a filmmaker. In the end, I appreciated the fact that this is a film that examined a group of minorities without being just about minorities. Too many films about people of color tend to restrict themselves to cultural pigeonholes; this one breaks through those walls and makes it about this person, amongst these people, in this place.
Final Grade: B