Kimball's Peak Three
In Pariah, the words "She's fine" are just as cutting as "nasty-ass dyke." Because "She's fine," spoken to one parent from another through gritted teeth, doesn't mean that their 17-year-old daughter is well. It means that she's straight.
But Alike (Adepero Oduye) isn't straight. Barring her closeted, constricted home life, she's openly gay, spending her days attracting a couple cute girls at school and her nights at a lesbian strip club in her Brooklyn neighborhood with her best friend/likely admirer, Laura (Pernell Walker). Laura's more into the bar scene than Alike, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable trying to prowl it to find her first lover. She accepts the why of her desires, but the how remains elusive, especially with a Christian mother (Kim Wayans) who tries to foist girly clothes on her eldest and keep the tomboyish Laura away.
Pariah is facilely being compared to 2009's Precious, which is misleading. Precious may have been raw, but Pariah feels more real. This is writer-director Dee Rees' debut, expanding on her short with the same star, and it's an astonishingly assured one. Rees keeps the camera right on top of her subjects, capturing every unsure squirm, grimace and, occasionally, smile. She doesn't shy away from action in the strip club, or when Alike makes an ill-advised plan to try to attract a classmate's attention with an uncomfortable strap-on.
The tight script isn't without humor. When Alike wants to take the dildo off while they're out, Laura says, "You gonna walk around the club with a dick in your hand?"
With so many city-youth movies such as Precious dominating the African-American market, it may be shocking to glimpse Alike's home life: There are two biological parents, both of whom are professionals. (Her father's an investigator, rendering that previously mentioned "She's fine" more likely a keeping-the-peace denial tactic than a statement of belief.) And they're strict, with Dad (Charles Parnell) somewhat jokingly telling Alike's little sis during a discussion about prom that she's not allowed to have sex for another 10 years.
In this case, however, too-loving parents are as destructive as absentee ones. (Though it must be said that their affection doesn't exactly extend to each other; it's intimated that the father is having an affair, and he's always arguing with his pushy wife.) A big segment of the story involves a friendship Alike's mother forces on her, with Bina (Aasha Davis), the apparently goody-goody daughter of a fellow churchgoer. At first Alike all but ignores her, but soon they discover a shared love of underground hip-hop. Suddenly Laura's not so much a part of Alike's picture anymore, and that first relationship she's tried so hard to find starts to blossom.
Throughout the film, you feel every joy and ache that Alike experiences. It helps that Rees made her a writer and poet; it may be a shortcut, but it's devastating to listen to Alike read her work, especially a heartbreaking poem at the film's bittersweet end. And Oduye herself turns in a breakout performance, so naturally inhabiting Alike that sections of Pariah feel more like a documentary.
You don't need to be questioning or part of the LGBT community for the film to resonate. Anyone who's ever felt herself shoehorned into something she's not will respond to the story. Especially when Alike finally starts to taste freedom: "I'm not running," she says. "I'm choosing."