Pariah (Focus Features, R)

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film pariah smOne of the most remarkable facts about Pariah is how it manages almost completely to avoid stereotypes.

film pariah lg

It’s not that often that you see a film, indie or otherwise, which takes you somewhere you’ve never been before and shows you things you have not already seen. Pariah, by first-time director Dee Rees, is the rare exception: From the opening shot which plunges you into a lesbian nightclub (complete with pole dancer and music whose lyrics cannot be repeated here), through its main subject—the sensitive portrayal of the world of a young woman coming to terms with her sexual identity—Pariah takes movie audiences to places most of them have probably never even imagined existed. To make it even more interesting, the central character is African-American and an AG or “aggressive,” meaning she cultivates a personal appearance similar to that of a man (baggy clothes, boots, baseball cap) rather than the feminine “lipstick lesbian” style that has become commonplace in the mainstream media.

Alike (pronounced “A-lee-kay” and played by Adepero Oduye), the central character in Pariah, is an honors student and a gifted poet who can light up the room with her smile. Her world is darkened, however, by a growing awareness of her sexual preference and the knowledge that it is not acceptable to her conventional (and conventionally religious) mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) or to many members of her community. It’s not about the sex—Alike hasn’t even kissed anyone yet—but about identity, and she’s trying to work it out by spending time with a butch lesbian (Pernell Walker) and her friends, staying out late at clubs frequented by other aggressives, and resisting her mother’s attempts to dress her in pink sweaters. Alike’s younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) is a conventional girl but is loyal to her sister, while her father Arthur (Charles Parnell) is more tolerant of what he sees as his older daughter’s tomboyish ways; in fact, he believes she’s just going through a proverbial phase, and is grateful that she’s not yet interested in boys.

There are other tensions within Alike’s household. Arthur, a police detective, resents having given up his dreams of being an attorney in order to support the family, while Audrey suspects him of having an affair. In the midst of this turmoil, Alike has developed a coping strategy of lying to her parents, changing her clothes after she leaves the house, and generally leading a double life, but it’s clear the burden is exerting a heavy toll on her young life.

One of the most remarkable facts about Pariah is how it manages almost completely to avoid stereotypes: Every important character is complex and humanized, while strong performances create a multifaceted portrait of an African-American family that is neither ghetto nor the Cosbys, and of a community in which not everyone is nice but many are striving to make things better.

Another strength of Pariah is the cinematography. The movie was shot on 35 mm film by Bradford Young, who makes creative use framing and lighting to give the film an atmospheric yet realistic look. The soundtrack, featuring emerging women artists of color, helps ground Alike’s story in a very real time and place. | Sarah Boslaugh

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