“Pariah” Preaches To The Choir Semi-Effectively

Posted: January 21, 2012 in movies
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Writer-director Dee Rees is the so-called “creative force” behind the new Sundance-approved indie semi-sensation Pariah, a largely autobiographical portrait (so we’re told) of her coming-out experience as a black lesbian teenager in Brooklyn. Fair enough. Making any non-studio film is tough, writing about your own life is even tougher, and this is certainly a competently-executed film (in many respects) which she can take a lot of pride in. And yet —

Sorry to step in it here, folks, and there will be those who argue that I’m inherently unqualified to offer this opinion being neither black nor homosexual (for that matter I’m not female either — or even a New Yorker, much less a Brooklynite), but damnit, I know when I’m being manipulated.

First off let’s acknowledge that what we’ve got here isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff — I don’t mean to minimize Rees’ life experiences in any way, shape ,or form, but while the fact that coming out of the closet is difficult, and even more difficult in the African-American community for a variety of reasons, is most definitely a sad reality, it’s not like this is some well-kept secret. Every garden-variety white liberal like myself knows it. I’m sure if I’d been through a fraction of what Rees, and her stand-in-for-herself-as-a-17-year-old protagonist, Alike (pronounced a-LEE-kay) had been through, I’d find more to relate to on a personal level with this story. But I’d still be honest enough to know that I was, on some level, being hoodwinked just a bit here — and frankly, if Rees was more confident in the inherent strength of her material, she’d realize there’s no need for it, as I’m sure a more honest recollection of her struggles would ultimately make for a more powerful and affecting film than what we’ve ultimately got with Pariah.

I have to give kudos to the actors — as Alike, Adepero Oduye is beyond sensational. She breathes life into a character that has to read on paper like little more than a cipher for the young, gay, and black experience (oh, and she’s a poet, too — of course). Her powerfully understated, deeply resonant performance gives the film much more than depth, it gives it heart and soul. As her religious mother struggling to cover the holes in her own marriage with Christian near-fundamentalism, Kim Wayans is also superb, and TV vet Charles Parnell shines as her willfully ignorant father in probably the movie’s most believably-scripted part — you know he knows what’s going on with his daughter and that his wife is terrified of facing reality, but he’d rather sweep it all under the rug and worry about it another day.

That day of reckoning can’t be put off forever, though, and as Alike becomes more confident in expressing who she is, and the drama in her life (she’s in love with a girl who’s not really all that gay, while her best friend, who’s very much “out,” is in love with her even though she knows Alike doesn’t share her romantic feelings — essentially a garden-variety “love triangle” transposed from a million-plus Lifetime network movies-of-the-week into a different cultural context) begins to spill over into the home, the truth can’t be ignored any longer.

And yet, despite all the confident, assured, downright remarkable performances at the center of this film, Rees feels the need to cover up the inherently syrupy, unnecessarily convoluted, quasi-“inspirational”-movie shortcomings in her script with a bogus veneer of thoroughly-played-out shaky-cam indie “credibility” that’s both grating and completely unnecessary, given that the actors are more than up the challenge of making this at least partially-hackneyed script seem a lot more real than it is.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing Pariah — it’s worth the price of admission based on the strength of the acting alone. But there’s a bigger tragedy unfolding off-screen than anything transpiring on-screen, and that is that Rees doesn’t have enough confidence in her story, her actors, or the intelligence of the audience to avoid schmaltzing it up, and then trying to cover up that schmaltz with bog-standard stylistic trappings that are well past their sell-by date. As such, it limits is appeal, for the most part, to those who may be able to overlook these weaknesses and see parts of heir own lives reflected in what’s happening on the screen.The end result is a film that ends up having more limited appeal than it probably deserves to, because the themes of alienation, family secrets, and struggling to express one’s individuality against daunting odds are more universal than Rees seems to realize and/or acknowledge —unfortunately, her insistence on hustling us both in terms of form and content ends up partially shoving her movie into the same type of closet her lead character, and she herself, struggled to come out of.

There’s a great film aching to break free from the self-imposed ghetto the obviously talented Dee Rees has shoehorned Pariah into. It’s sort of tragic that she didn’t have enough faith in herself to make it, as her cast would  have been more than up to the challenge.

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