The opening scene, set amid the noise and grind of an urban strip club, tells us a whole lot about Alike. At 17, she’s still uncomfortable in these surroundings – it’s not her scene – yet her eyes can’t help but fixate on the strippers’ undulating curves. It’s immediately clear that Alike has no doubt about her sexual orientation. Instead, like any teen, what disorients her is how to act on those desires, which roles to play and postures to assume. Even her clothes reflect her confusion. On the way home from the club, in a neat reversal of the usual teenage-girl cliché, she trades in her butch T-shirt for a sexier blouse. Mom prefers her that way.
So begins Pariah which, despite its rather overwrought title, develops into a nicely grounded coming-of-age tale – yes, with a lesbian theme. Writer-director Dee Rees places her young protagonist in the black middle class. Father (Charles Parnell) is a hard-working cop; Mother (Kim Wayans) is a church-going worrier; and Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a smart high-school senior, college-bound and given to writing earnest poetry.
Although she hasn’t come out to her parents, they harbour suspicions but trust that it’s just a “phase.” A more aggressive intervenor, Mom plies the girl with frilly outfits; Dad, who dotes on Alike, is content to turn a blind eye. Anyway, he’s out late most nights and appears to have a secret of his own – no wonder it’s a palpably tense and argumentative marriage.
With that context established, the plot heads off in the direction favoured by most such adolescent odysseys: experimentation followed by tumult punctuated by revelation. But if the destination is trite, the journey isn’t – it comes with an ample supply of raw honesty. For example, there’s Laura. Large and good-hearted, the toughened survivor of a more impoverished background, she’s Alike’s mentor in the ways of lesbian culture, with its crisp sexual division between butch and femme. But the student, unlike the teacher, is uncomfortable with these simple labels, which seem as confining to her as any stereotype. She tries them on, she takes them off – nothing quite seems to fit.
Help arrives in the lovely shape of Bina (Aasha Davis), a stylish classmate who radiates social confidence. They bond over a shared taste in music, enjoy girlish confabs behind closed doors, and then, one night, something more. The morning-after scene is one of those raw moments, a clash of confusion that lays bare Bina’s apparent confidence – after all, she’s young too, and also trying on different guises.
A later sequence with Alike’s dad is similarly rich. She’s up late, he returns late, and they meet in the kitchen, the doting father and daughter each with their separate troubles and subterfuges. Their stop-and-start conversation is as tender as it is awkward, circling delicately around truths half-known yet unstated. It’s a touching vignette that rises above its particular content to become a classic family tableau – that familiar blend of love and lies.
Not everything works that well. Occasionally, Rees’s script seems to mimic Alike’s poetry, and fall into its own slough of earnestness, as the stages of the girl’s dawning enlightenment get dutifully ticked off like stations of the cross. And the crucial character of the mother, fuelled by her anger and her religion, seems too rigidly one-dimensional. Still, their final confrontation, held in the open air of full disclosure, rings true. There, once again, hopeful youth reaches out to life while embittered age is reduced to prayer.
- Directed and written by Dee Rees
- Starring Adepero Oduye, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars
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