Adapero Oduye as Alike
Aasha Davis as Bina
Charles Parnell as Arthur
Kim Wayans as Audrey
Pernell Walker as Laura
Sahra Mellesse as Sharonda
We give Hollywood a lot of grief for trying hard to simplify complicated subjects into easily digestible nuggets for the largest possible audience. Grief it has well earned. (And, it must be said, even when dealing with indies we're still talking about Hollywood as the largest distributor of them and still on the same criteria much of the time). This is particularly obvious in the pluming of the darker side of human nature, which is frequently shown in blacks and whites and far away from anything like the way actual people act.
Into that sort of paradigm we do from time to time get something like "Pariah," Dee Rees' subtle, engrossing exploration of discrimination and the search for personal identity. More importantly, however, it's a story about a person and how they react and live throw these themes, with the two halves working hand in hand and never getting in each other's way.
Alike (Adapero Oduye) is a minority within a minority, a black lesbian who prefers to dress as a boy. But given the way the African American community sees homosexuals, she naturally has to keep that identity hidden, changing into her preferred clothes at school and trying desperately not to let her appearances driven mother (Kim Wayans) or other family members know about her growing and changing identity.
A feature film adaptation of Rees' 2007 short of the same name, one of the many great things about "Pariah" is how resolutely it avoids cliché and creates real human beings. The closest thing to standard independent hash it gets is Alike's skill as a poet, enough to put her on a track to early graduation and on to a potential creative writing scholarship.
But for all of that, it avoids so many other pitfalls it can be forgiven for the few it hits. Alike is a smart and engaged young woman who wants much out of life; she comes from a strong nuclear family with good role models in her nurse mother and police officer father (Charles Parnell). Neither deadbeat dads or gangbangers or young upward mobiles, they are completely normal and loving and ordinary and unfortunately not at all prepared for the idea that their eldest daughter might be gay.
Writer/director Rees definitely has a point to make and makes it eloquently and subtly throughout "Pariah" as the individuals in Alike's life begin to look under her surface and see who she really is. Rees has put together her story elegantly with well-drawn characters and she makes certain to keep her ideas from tripping over her people.
Which would all be for naught if Oduye wasn't up to the task of carrying the film and creating a real person out of Alike. But she is, and then some. Without ever delving into staginess or over acting, ever moment Oduye is on screen is a moment of discovery with no emotion coming off as false or forced. Especially as her tightly separated life begins to come together despite her best efforts as it becomes clear her parents and friends know more about her inner life than she would like.
If anything it is with her mother where "Pariah" hits its bumpiest marks as she represents some of the only hand-on-the-scale moments in the film. Religious and paranoid and self-denying, Audrey sees through Alike's dissembling first and reacts to it worst, turning her anger over her daughter into anger with her husband and the world in general. Trying to 'save' her daughter and 'fix' her family she thrusts Alike into the path of a church acquaintances daughter (Aasha Davis), but instead only increases the rate of her carefully constructed world's disintegration.
For how obvious the mother's story can be so much else in "Pariah" works so well you can easily be left wanting more. Cut short and quickly, some of the side characters – particularly Alike's best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) – aren't given as much time as you might wish.
But if one of the worst criticisms is that you are left wanting more, that's the sign of a very good film. And "Pariah" is a very good film, hitting exactly the notes it wants to without ever forgetting that it is ultimately about a person. Combined with Oduye's nuanced creation of a complicated, complex individual and you have one of the best films of the year.