Review: Pariah

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Pariah

In a word, Pariah is authentic.

So authentic, in fact, that I didn't understand some of the dialogue. Pariah's characters, most of them African-American teenagers living in Brooklyn, discuss sex and relationships with a refreshing frankness, if in a vernacular that middle-aged Texan white guys like me can't always decipher. But I easily understood the gist of their conversations from the context; having been a teenager in the late Mesozoic era, I had no trouble relating to the characters' struggles with relationships and sexual identity.

Based on writer/director Dee Rees's 2007 short film of the same title, Pariah follows 17-year-old Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay and superbly played by Adepero Oduye), a gifted student who is openly lesbian among her friends but hasn't found the courage to come out to her parents, Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell).

Given Alike's behavior and the company she keeps -- her closest companion is out lesbian Laura (Pernell Walker) -- Audrey and Arthur have their suspicions about Alike, but her sexual orientation isn't the sort of thing they'll openly discuss in their religious and mostly traditional household. Instead, Audrey insists on taking Alike to a conservative church, encouraging her to go to school dances and buying her the sort of feminine clothing she hates. Arthur avoids any conflict by staying emotionally distant from his family; Alike's sexuality is only one of many situations straining his marriage.

Thinking that a colleague's daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), will be a good influence on Alike, Audrey presses her daughter to befriend the girl. At first, Alike ignores Bina; like any self-respecting teen, she has no interest in hanging out with a friend her mom picked out for her. But eventually, Alike warms up to Bina, considering her a great confidant as they both deal with the difficulties of adolescence.

Pariah tells Alike's story with great passion; the story seems a very personal one for Rees, whose script and direction imbue the film with plenty of emotional resonance. And everything about the film feels real. But as personal as the story may be, it's also universal; Alike's struggle is that of any teenager trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. Pariah is less about lesbians than about adolescent angst and family conflict.

Based on Pariah's captivating but somewhat misleading preview, viewers may expect a somewhat kinder, gentler version of the harrowing Precious, as both films are about troubled African-American teens in New York City. But the two stories are wholly different; whereas Precious is impoverished and illiterate, Alike is comfortably middle class and a talented poet headed for college.  Precious has an abusive mother from hell; Alike's parents are loving and supportive in most respects, although her mother is completely mistaken about what's best for her daughter. Also, Pariah frequently is very funny. It's a film with serious themes, but it's not a tragedy; it's nowhere near as dark as Precious.

If Pariah makes anyone a star, it will be the luminous Oduye, who completely inhabits Alike in a remarkably believable performance. The glamorous 33-year-old (I was surprised to learn her age) looks every bit of 17 and plays the troubled, unglamorous Alike effortlessly; like so many performances in Pariah, her take on Alike is so real that she doesn't appear to be acting at all. Pariah had a limited, Oscar-friendly release in late 2011; if there is any justice in Oscar world (please do not laugh at my naiveté), Oduye would be a best actress nominee.

Beyond Oduye's star turn, there are plenty of other strong performances in Pariah. The best of the lot are Wayans and Parnell's slow-burning Audrey and Arthur. Wayans is particularly good as Pariah's most conflicted character, a deeply religious woman torn between her sense of morality and her love for a daughter she doesn't understand. Parnell's Arthur is far more tolerant, if far less willing to defend his point of view. He spends most of the film in a haggard, slightly emasculated slump; obviously, he's tried to defy Audrey's rigid world view before, without much success.

Davis is also terrific as Bina. Like Oduye, the thirtysomething Davis is completely comfortable playing a girl half her age, although Bina seems far more worldly than Alike. Where Alike is naïve and hesitant, Bina has a been-there-done-that cynicism as she helps her friend cross various adolescent bridges.  (I'll say she's hardly the wholesome influence Audrey hoped she would be, and leave it at that.)

Pariah isn't cutting-edge cinema. But again, it's entirely authentic, a vibrant and moving coming of age story with many universal themes.  Its story breaks no new ground, but it's a fresh and timely take on the ageless drama of adolescence.