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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.

Indeed.

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

  • Thank you for the review, Tambay. I cannot wait to see this and I really hope that it finds a distributor. I feel that, even if people don’t initially come out in droves to see it, a good word of mouth could give it some momentum at the box office.

  • Tambay, you said a lot, and you said it well. If I had your hand, I’d throw mine away.

    Having read many of your reviews, I believe I’ve come to a better understanding of the words you use, and those you do not. In this case, I am leaning toward “praise in public & admonish in private”.

    As I was reading your review (excellent I must say) I didn’t get the sense that you were leaping for joy about this move. You gave us reasons why you thought the film festival placed it on it’s opening night schedule, yet, much of your review centered on why others may not particularly enjoy it.

    And, although you did give subtle hints of praise, the “yeah buts” and “could have beens” overshadowed any reasons why a person (imo) should rush to view this movie.

    Granted, the theme of black lesbianism is not for everyone, and considering that to be a fact, I would have loved to hear more about how the movie developed the father/daughter relationship. And, what were the unnecessary subplots? They could – who knows – be a better drawing card than what you’ve written.

    Also, you mentioned your atheist status and your African heritage. I’ve heard (don’t know) that some African nations have a very strict – opposing view – on homosexuality, so (not saying you do) but if others held similar values/belief, why would they want to see this movie? I know you’re a reviewer/critic and not a promoter, but give me something I can feel.

  • Vanessa

    I actually had fully developed idea on a story about a black teenage lesbian softball player in HS. This is super interesting. Can’t wait to see.

  • Shanea

    Thanks for this review, Tambay. I always look forward to your commentary. I saw the short while I was at NYU and I was really impressed. Look forward to seeing this.

  • Jochen Kunstler

    Great review! I had the pleasure of working with Charles Parnell and Brad Young on the amazing “Mississippi Damned”, Tina Mabry’s directorial debut which 2 years ago premiered at Slamdance. Let’s hope “Pariah” will get release. – Mississippi Damned, with all it’s festival success is now luckily available as self distributed DVD, but it too would have deserved a wider release.

  • James

    “Alike’s Double Consciousness.” I like that because that’s precisely what it describes.

    I saw it opening night, and I agree. It’s a good film, but not great. A respectable debut by Dee and one of the best at this year’s Sundance. Though not the strongest year it’s seen.

    I hope it gets picked up.

  • Reviewer X

    I saw it and liked it. Great review, I agree with your points on both parents and the performance of Pernell Walker as Laura. She looks so much different out of character.

    Can’t believe the age of the actress who played Bina.