Sundance 2011 – “Pariah” Review
For a film that many may immediately classify as niche, Dee Ree’s admirable feature film debut, Pariah, is widely accessible. A broadly-defined coming-of-age drama that even the late John Hughes would appreciate. Except, instead of the privileged, strictly white, hetero universe that films like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles exist in, Pariah centers on a teenage, black lesbian from a middle class Brooklyn family, juggling identities, as she works towards fully realizing and embracing her true self; or as she reiterates a line initially spoken by her unabashedly Christian mother who suspects, derides and would prefer to “heal” her daughter’s sexual orientation: “God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Though for an atheist like myself, while I do understand the sentiment, the statement itself, used frequently in similar real-life situations, rings hollow. As someone who already exists somewhat on the fringes of societies normatives, empathizing with the plight of the film’s troubled central character came naturally. And I do wonder if that same sentiment, as held by the character’s mother, will keep audiences – especially black audiences, and our perceived strict intolerance of homosexuality – away from the theaters or DVD rental kiosks, both on and offline, when Pariah is eventually released… if it is acquired for distribution. But that’s another matter altogether.
That the Sundance Film Festival opened its 2011 installment with Pariah, speaks volumes of the festival’s re-emphasis on the gritty, personal filmmaking style by new voices that once defined the festival, which, in recent years, has opted for the ostentatious. It also says plenty about Pariah, that the premiere film festival in the country, and one of the most revered in the world, selected it as one of 2 opening night films.
Dee Rees expands her critically acclaimed, multi-festival played short film, about a lesbian teenager struggling to come to terms with her identity, while confronting her parents’ denial, also titled Pariah, workshopped through the Sundance Writers‘, Directors‘, and Producers‘ Labs – a film set in a world we rarely get to experience on screen, big and small.
Coming-of-age dramas centered on gay teens aren’t particularly fresh, especially at film festivals, but how many can you name that revolve around young, black girls? Even broader, ask any cinephile for titles of feature-length films primarily about black lesbians, and most will probably mention Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman first, and maybe as well as last.
The obvious point here is that there just haven’t been that many of them – certainly not many that have received as much attention as Dunye’s has, and now, Dee Rees’. And that alone helps catapult the film, thanks to the success it has enjoyed thus far, into a class almost entirely of its own. Although, as I begun this review stating, it isn’t so niche that it can’t be appreciated by mainstream audiences, as I attempt to point out its singularity, while still stressing its broader appeal. Pariah is both remarkable for its accomplishments, and unremarkable in the sense that it does feel somewhat familiar, when one considers other films that can be similarly broadly classified – teen coming-of-age dramas. That can be both a blessing and a curse, and could make it a pariah (pun intended) in the eyes of potential distributors.
Dee Rees’ assured writing and direction, Bradford Young’s rich, intense and laudable cinematography, along with credible performances by the cast – notably Adepero Oduye as vulnerable, chameleon star teen Alike, and Pernell Walker as vivacious best friend Laura - are vivid and provide enough realism, giving the film its verisimilitude – emphasized by the fact that Rees herself calls the work semi-autobiographical. It’s a deeply personal work and it shows.
The film could have been subtitled, Alike’s Double Consciousness, borrowing from Du Bois’ thesis on the social values and daily struggles faced by blacks in the US of A. She initially believes that she has no other choice but to live her life through the eyes of others. She essentially imprisons herself in a psycho-social state, with 2 warring souls, that effectively renders her without an identity. And she must break free of her self-imposed restraints and finally make a choice, which she eventually does summarily, when she states, in the end, “I’m not running, I’m choosing.”
The film’s message is clear and, thankfully, isn’t force-fed. It avoids, though not always successfully, coming-of-age drama cliches in characters, arcs, and plotlines, and its somewhat ambiguous, yet confident ending was appreciated by this critic.
Where it isn’t as successful is in its unnecessary subplots, which I felt only distracted from the main narrative, raising additional questions that aren’t properly addressed. There was more than enough meat in the core Alike story for us to chew on, and I would have much preferred that Rees instead used the screen time allotted to those secondary story-lines, to further expose Alike’s interior, her immediate world and her relationship to the characters that live in it.
Her mother especially, played rather well by Kim Wayans, in a very rare dramatic performance, is a little too thinly defined. Given how much presence she has in the story, I wanted a much more 3-dimensional depiction of her, as well as her relationship with Alike. The fictionalized mother-daughter dynamic is typically considered the most important of all inter-generational relationships. Estrangement between a mother and a daughter, as is the case in Pariah, can often be riddled with complexities. But I didn’t really feel the weight of the divide that Dee’s film wants us to be touched by.
On the other hand of the parent/child relationship, as a man of African descent living in America, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the strong presence of a father (played by Charles Parnell) in Alike’s life – something that ordinarily shouldn’t at all be noteworthy, but very much is, given the well-documented absence of affirming black fathers in African American homes, both on screen and in real life. The intimate father/daughter dynamic here, although not always perfect, is a rare pleasure to behold.
Despite all I’ve said above, Pariah doesn’t take place totally in a state of depression or despondency. Dee Rees scatters just enough well-timed humor throughout the mostly dramatic film.
Pariah scats along in a well-paced, brisk 84 minutes. And while it certainly isn’t without its flaws, it’s a welcomed under-served slice of Americana, or maybe I should instead say humana, that satisfies.
7 comments to Sundance 2011 – “Pariah” Review
View in: Mobile | Standard