ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 41: Pariah

Year: 2011

Runtime: 87 Minutes

Director: Dee Rees

Writer: Dee Rees

Stars: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Aasha Davis

By James Cain

The Forever Young Film Club is a British organisation whose primary activity is to host screenings of coming-of-age movies. “Girlhood”, “Booksmart” and “Mid90s” have all attracted large crowds, and the Club is clearly going from strength to strength. The main reason for this continuing success is down to the hard work of the three women behind the screenings, but there’s also the fact that, sooner or later, pretty much all of us have to grow up. Changing friendships, sex, sexuality, hopes, dreams and discovering your parent/s’ flaws are all part of moving from childhood to adulthood, which means that coming-of-age is perhaps cinema’s most relatable subgenre.

Dee Rees’ 2011 feature debut “Pariah” is one such film. A semi-autobiographical story, the movie charts a few days in the life of Brooklyn teen Alike (Adepero Oduye). Nearing the end of high school, our hero is passionate about creative writing, enjoys staying out late, and is looking for love. She shares a house with her overly-protective mum, rarely-seen dad, and combative sister. This is plenty enough for one teenager to deal with, let alone being a lesbian who isn’t yet out to everyone in her life.

What She Said

“Pariah tells an involving story that’s both deftly relatable and urgently progressive.”

Kristal Cooper, We Got This Covered

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“Pariah” is a tough film at times, but it’s also sweet, funny and thoughtful. The movie opens with a quote from Audre Lorde: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” It’s clear why this sentiment of having no place to belong, no place to roost, resonated with Rees. The now-famous filmmaker was in the process of coming out and in her late twenties when she started making “Pariah”. What’s more, Audre Lorde was a black, lesbian, feminist writer and activist. She was a warrior who inspired others. A great choice of role model for a young, black lesbian, then, and an ideal person to help us meet Alike, looking for her place in the world.

Her place certainly doesn’t seem to be at home. Alike can’t move without inviting the attention of overbearing mum Audrey (Kim Wayans). The matriarch means well – we see genuine love and attempts at bonding – but her conservative Christian values mean that Alike’s growing masculinity causes Audrey to become increasingly hostile. Then there’s Alike’s dad, Arthur (Charles Parnell), the parent with whom she shares a much warmer relationship. However, as Arthur is an NYPD detective he’s always working and not a reliable source of support (not to mention the NYPD’s less-than-stellar relationship with New York’s queer & trans community). Finally, there’s Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), Alike’s younger sister and frequent sparring partner and antagonist.

What She Said

“The first word I muttered under my breath after watching writer/director Dee Rees’ Pariah, an expansion of her award-winning short film of the same name, was, “Wow.””

Sara Michelle Fetters, MovieFreak.com

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Thankfully, her best friend gets it. Laura (Pernell Walker) is an out, a butch lesbian who is both Alike’s main source of support and her romance confidante. It’s through these scenes where we get much of the film’s warmth and humour. For example, one scene sees Laura securing Alike a strap-on before a (very awkward) first date with a girl at school. This is something to which many of us can relate when it comes to early sexual adventures: Trying to run before we’ve started walking, having built up expectations in our head.

Of course, things aren’t even simple with Laura. Not only is she, like Alike, studying for her end-of-school exams, but she’s also estranged with her mum after coming out, itself a huge mental health burden. And that’s a recurring theme of “Pariah”: We all have our own shit, and sometimes that hurts others. Yes, Audrey is a homophobe and seemingly unable to put herself in other shoes, but she herself is dealing with fears that her husband is having an affair. Arthur is clearly falling out of love with his much more conservative wife and will argue with her at maximum volume despite his daughters being metres away. One of the characters is clearly too afraid to come out of the closet, declaring “I’m not ‘gay’ gay”.

What She Said

“The film benefits most of all from Rees’ careful screenplay, which dances that shifting line between fear and emergent hope. One of Alike’s poems says it best: “Even breaking is opening. And I am broken. I am open.””

Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle

Which is why Oduye’s performance as Alike is so damn impressive. Here’s a young woman going through some really tough stuff, while trying to both get laid and make the most of her creative writing talents. Oduye’s sells it all beautifully, with a restrained, subtle performance that sells both the sweet (early flirtations with an electric love interest) and the heartbreaking (realising that something genuinely good in her life was a false hope). You’re there with her every step of the way, rooting for her to go off into the world and become a famous writer.

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“Pariah” will likely be triggering for some people. How many LGBTQ people’s pre-out behaviour was described as “just a phase” by a parent who moans that their kid “just doesn’t like anything I pick out for her anymore”? How many young lesbians feel the need to change their image to be around their family, just as Alike does on the bus home? Yes, this is a tough movie that doesn’t shy away from how hard it can be as a young queer/trans person. However, what Dee Rees has ultimately made is a touching, beautiful, hopeful coming-of-age film that will resonate with many and hopefully educate even more.

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

Amazon Prime: Rent & Buy

ITunes: Rent & Buy

Google Play: Rent & Buy

Who to Follow:

Adepero Oduye @adeperoOduye

Pernell Walker @Pernell

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