Saturday, December 31, 2011


Family Secrets, In Hetero And Homosexual Closets

Kim Wayans (left) as Audrey Freeman and Adepero Oduye as Alike Freeman in Dee Rees' drama "Pariah". 
Focus Features


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, December 31
, 2011

A real treasure of a film, Dee Rees's feature drama "Pariah" begins in a somewhat confrontational no-holds barred way, at a nightclub with a song that would make your mother blush.  It's a mini-litmus test for an unsuspecting audience as much as it is an initiation of sorts for Alike Freeman (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn lesbian who isn't quite comfortable with exactly where on that sexual continuum she wants to reside. 

Living in a conservative, middle-class family, with a younger, precocious sister (Sahra Mellesse) and Audrey, her mother (Kim Wayans, excellent here) and Arthur, her police officer father (Charles Parnell, also brilliant), Alike straddles the boundaries of home that suffocate her and the robustly confident Laura (Pernell Walker), Alike's lesbian lover, whom her mother has warned her to stay away from.  Arthur's "daddy's little girl" reminders to Alike feel more like a compulsion designed to reinforce his fantasized or imagined perception of Alike's heterosexuality first and his love for her a close second.  Arthur suspects that his little girl may not like little boys, but he hopes against hope in the outcome.  Meanwhile, Alike's neighborhood friend, Bina (Aasha Davis), a straight woman, is foisted onto her by Audrey, presenting a tension that further complicates Alike's journey of comfort, affirmation and belonging.

"Pariah" is a colorful, rich tapestry of familial secrets and deeply-rooted truths that come home to roost in a powerful way.  There's a theme of physicality and closeness that constantly flows with an elasticity throughout Ms. Rees film, which was based upon the director's short film of the same name that Ms. Oduye, so charismatic and beautiful here, also starred in.  Debuting at Sundance this year, "Pariah" sparks the conscience and is a thought-provoking drama that investigates prejudices in some parts of the African-American community against same-sex relationships in a real and honest manner.  The characters of "Pariah" are not Grey Poupon talkers.  They lay out everything on the table and sometimes very bluntly.  Sex is talked about like a dangling hot pepper waiting to be eaten but sometimes like a cold shower that has come on too fast and far too strong.  The film's variance between worlds and atmospheres is much more imperceptible than one might think.

Proximity to the consummation of Alike's physical resting place where she can be completely comfortable, versus proximity to the truths of her family life are often as close as a sprint or as far away as a marathon waiting to be run.  Alike feels spurned by both sides of her "double life", hence her pariah status.  (A quote that begins the film illustrates the tragic dilemma.)  She dresses like a girl at home, then changes in the stalls at school into the uniform of her true self.  Alike and Laura have trials and tribulations in their relationship but "Pariah" has its greatest strengths and triumphs in the surprises it brings its audience.  Often the film's events blindside but these are slices of life and transition that happen so poetically and honestly it's hard to deny the power, truth and resonance they have on the big screen. 

Ms. Rees directs "Pariah" with a suspenseful deliberation, with several episodic scenes that create a deck from which to shuffle and rearrange audience assumptions.  Much is revealed but equally as much is left unsaid, building a barrier of silence that Alike (and by extension the audience) has to work through.

"Pariah" represents a stunning feature debut from Ms. Rees and a textured, confident film augmented by excellent acting from the cast, from Ms. Oduye to Mr. Parnell to Ms. Walker to Ms. Davis to Ms. Mellesse to Ms. Wayans, who is, it is worth repeating so very good here.  She merits, as does Nia Long ("Mooz-lum"), serious consideration and inclusion as an Oscar nominee next month.

Though not ostensibly a "black" film -- for that is self-evident in the casting, a refreshing fact -- "Pariah" is about a black community invested in averting taboo, so much so that it is wound so tightly with secrets that it will burst.  One character threatens to tell on another as she catches her with an object that her family would abandon her over if they ever saw it.  You keep thinking they will stumble upon and find the object, but they don't have to.  Ms. Rees and her film are far smarter than that, and her excellent screenplay brings a strict passion and intelligence to each of the film's diverse voices.  The film is about the headquarters of one's natural being and not about identity.  Each character knows who he or she is -- it is the fear of finding out they have no home to go to that is of greatest concern to them.

Arthur has his own cross to bear, and it is a moral one.  His evasions and shorthand with his neighborhood buddies forms a shrouded, insulating sense of denial as strong as his daughter's sense of alienation.  Alike knows, as does everyone else in the family, that her home is not exactly the comforting white picket fence of security and fidelity it advertises.  Laura, in perhaps the starkest rebuke of a family member, has been disowned by her own estranged mother, and a scene in which Ms. Walker visits her speaks aching volumes.

A personal film partially based on some of the director's own experiences as she came out of the closet as a lesbian, "Pariah", as written by Ms. Rees, is intimate, universal and relatable to audiences of any sexual persuasion.  The film is rooted in its distinct and almost lurid, saturated style, brought out beautifully by cinematographer Bradford Young.  "Pariah" is about life choices and breaking free from the family code, which here likely means don't speak of the devil before the devil speaks of you. 

"Pariah" is filmmaking at its very best, and of the crop of black-themed films released this year, it's very formidable and comfortably in front of the rest.

With: Shamika Cotton, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Zabryna Guevara, Kim Sykes, Afton Williamson, Rob Morgan, Jeremie Harris.

"Pariah" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content and language.  The film's duration is one hour and 26 minutes.  "Pariah" is now playing exclusively in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and will expand its release in January.

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