Pariah (2011)

Pariah first published by EyeforFilm

In her bedroom, encouraged by her dykish best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), 17-year-old Alike Freeman (Adepero Oduye) – ‘Le’ to her friends – puts a strap-on dildo over her jeans. Yet if Dee Rees’ Pariah is not apologetic or even coy about the high school senior’s lesbianism, nor is it graphic or titillating in presenting it, instead maintaining Alike’s own tentativeness and reserve (“Promise you won’t tell mum,” she pleads with her younger sister who has just walked in).

The point of this scene is not the mechanics of prosthetic penises, nor the ins and outs of Sapphic sexuality, but rather just the fact that, in all her inexperience, Alike is quite literally trying it on. The uncomfortable device may in the end not be for her, but Alike’s experiment with it forms part of her adolescent journey towards a sense of who she is and what she wants – not unlike her preference for being called Le.

In other words, Rees’ Pariah, expanded from her semi-autobiographical 2007 short of the same name, is at heart concerned with rites of passage, although the fact that there are relatively few films about African-American women, and even fewer about African-American lesbians, ensures that Alike’s road to adulthood never feels too well-trodden.

After all, nothing quite refreshes an old trope like the specificities of time, place, class and culture – and Alike’s experiences are neither set in the white suburbia of so many other teen flicks, nor feature the sort of domestic horror shown in, say, Precious (2009). Alike is a straight-A pupil living in a middle-class home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with hard-working parents who, despite their share of dysfunction, do not make a habit of abusing their daughters.

Still, Alike faces pressure from all sides. Besides the prejudices and threats of ostracism from her peers at school, Alike’s religiously devout mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) just wants her to be chaste and pretty in pink – even if her desire for Alike to hang out with nice Christian girl Bina (Aasha Davis) rather than with morally and sexually suspect Laura leads, ironically enough, to Alike’s first real lesbian encounter.

Meanwhile Alike’s overprotective policeman father Arthur (Charles Parnell) just wants Alike to walk the straight and narrow, and to stop attracting nasty slurs from his friends at the local liquor store – even as the more conventional relationship that he shares with Audrey proves to have problems of its own. Yet Alike herself just wants to find love and an independent voice, and so she must juggle her fractious home life with coming of age and coming out.

All this is conveyed through top-notch performances and a vibrant soundtrack (reflecting Alike’s own tastes in underground music) – but most arresting of all is the cinematography of Bradford Young, hugging Alike in handheld, narrow-focus close-ups that keep us, like her, unable yet fully to see the big world beyond the cocoon from which she is starting to emerge.

© Anton Bitel