Film Review: Pariah

In my initial, mostly mental draft of this review, I began with a long paragraph about my declining interest in mainstream--Hollywood--and a good deal of independent US cinema, but on rereading it, I decided to forgo the rant and instead focus on one aspect of it, which is to say, the mainstream and a good deal of queer American moviemaking. As with the broader US film mainstream, in far too many US queer cinema, the stories represent a narrow spectrum, in multiple ways; they traffic in stereotypes; and almost never do I see anything produced calling itself queer cinema that that reflects the diversity of lives I know, including anyone like me in them. To give one example, I'll cite the Oscar-nominated film The Kids Are Alright (2010), which received considerable praise, especially for its fine performances (especially by Annette Bening), but I had to ask after having watched it, who were these women? I know they exist, but what about the millions of lesbians who aren't upper-middle-class, asset-rich, highly educated, asset-rich, homeowners, white? What about all the women and transwomen whose main concern isn't a faltering relationship caused by the appearance of a sperm donor but how they'll put food on the table, keep their jobs if they have them, deal with difficult or unyielding family members, survive?  What about the lesbians who aren't coupled up, with attractive children who could easily step out of a Gap ad, who despite the societal and cultural changes are still treated like outlaws and pariahs?

Considering what's rarely shown or depicted, I was very happy to go with C to see Pariah, Dee Rees' Sundance Film Festival favorite from last year, which was playing at this year's Film Society of Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films Festival in New York. I had not seen the 2007 short, which garned a great deal of acclaim, but I had read a little about the film to know its contours. Alike (Adepero Oduye), pronounced Ah-LEE-kay, is a 16-year-old African-American lesbian living in Brooklyn with her middle-class family and partially in the closet, partially out. In, as Alike, to the degree possible when at home, because of her emotionally smothering, doctrinaire, religious mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) and her loving but emotionally distant father, an NYPD detective, Arthur (Charles Parnell). Out, as "Lee," when at school and with her closest friend, Laura (Pernell Whitaker, who also gives a superb perform), an aggressive who's been thrown out of her home, dropped out of school, and is now living with her older sister.  The story, which reprises elements of many a coming-out tale's plots, nevertheless feels fresh because of the acting, the setting, the focus of the story itself.  I cannot think of hardly any non-documentary features I have seen, at least in the last 15 years, that spends even a short period of time exploring the life of a black lesbian/queer woman, young, old or otherwise, or even that portrays the dynamics of queer life within the framework of a contemporary urban middle-class or working-class family, particularly one comprising people of color. (QuinceaƱera does this, admirably in my perspective, for a Latino family.)

As is the case with the coming-out plot, we know what's on the way, at least in part. Alike is going to encounter resistance from her mother, there'll be a showdown, that love is closer than she imagines, and...well, I won't spoil things. But let's just say that despite the traumas she experiences, the film is about more than just coming into queerness; it's about coming into selfhood, sexually, emotionally, culturally, spiritually. By the end, this kid is alright--and on her way to a womanhood she's creating for herself. Rees, who wrote and directed Pariah, manages to throw in a few twists, including a comic-that-turns-heartbreaking plot point involving Audrey's attempts to have her daughter associate with a friend's daughter, a more "feminine" acting--read as straight--bohemian schoolmate named Bina (Aasha Davis).  Rees also captures the lingo, the milieu, so authoritatively that from the opening sequence I never doubted her choices.  Yet Pariah doesn't unfold like a documentary, or as a sociological or anthropological lesson. I didn't feel as if I were a tourist or voyeur in this world (and I say this while acknowledging many points of personal connection and identification with the story).  Rees's script succeeds as a story, with narrative complexity, proceeding assuredly towards its minor and major climaxes, and in the process draws us fully into Lee's life, her world, her head. Her journey of self-awareness and empowerment, of not accepting society's--or her mother's--branding of her as a "pariah," of becoming who she will be, ultimately affected me deeply and wanting more, of her life, and from this writer-director.

Technically the film was as accomplished as any I have seen in a while. Bradford Young's cinematography, in every light, whether in the corner store, on the pier, in the women's club, at school, draws the beauty from these faces in a way that's sadly too rare, especially Lee's, her dark brown eyes and complexion almost glowing with pain and possibility. Compositionally the frames shot within Lee's home convey a sense of claustrophobia; we feel that Audrey, unhappy and lonesome at being physically forsaken by her husband, rattled and enraged by her eldest daughter's sexuality, has created a cocoon that is suffocating everyone involved. Every time we step outside, the sense of freedom becomes palpable, the effect crystallized in the scene towards the film's end involving Lee and her father on the roof of the building where Laura and her sister live.  Yet another moment of compositional achievement occurs when Rees shows us Laura's mother, peering at the top of the stairs through her house's barely cracked door, at her daughter she cannot bring herself even to speak to, let alone accept, as Laura climbs and then descends the stairs, pleading, imploring, trying to share her major accomplishment with a woman who can barely suffer to acknowledge her.

If there were any off notes, they came in two places. The first, relatively minor, was in Rees's depiction of Lee's interaction with her high-school English teacher, Mrs. Alvarado (Zabryna Guevara). These moments felt more like echoes of what I'd seen onscreen before multiple times, and I wished that Rees could have offered a bit more texture, a bit more complication. Speaking from direct knowledge here, having taught poetry to inner-city high school students, including young women like Lee, I wished we might have seen the teacher, Lee and her classmates wrestling a bit more with what might lie just on the other side of her poetry, of what she was still unable to put on the page, or what was there without her fulling seeing it. One other less-successful aspect of the film, a bit larger, was the depiction of Lee's mother, Audrey. I felt I knew what Rees was after, who Audrey was, but between the concision required in filmic characterization and Wayans' limitations as an actress, she was perhaps the least succcessful character.  More than balancing her out, however, are the other characters, particularly Oduye, who completely inhabits and realizes Alike-Lee, but also Stewart as Laura, whose unspoken desire is palpable even before she reveals it, and Parnell as the father who doesn't reject his daughter, but can only partially grasp what she's going through.

Whenever I come across a film like this, I feel a surge of hope that it will be the beginning of many such works, but I know the reality is quite different. Nevertheless, I hope Rees continues on her path, and that all involved, including producer Nekisa Cooper and the executive producers, who include Spike Lee, can figure out a way to bring more of the rich tapestry of stories, especially those about people of color, queer people, and queer people of color, to the screen. And please, more films to showcase Oduye and these other talented actors! Then the kids--the children--will be on the road to being truly alright.