Directed by Dee Rees
There are strap-ons for packing and strap-ons for sex, but if you’re the only teenage lesbian in your Brooklyn neighborhood, you may not know the difference. Alike (Adepero Oduye) doesn’t, and that’s how she ends up frowning at the six inches of pasty silicone sprouting from the harness over her boxer-clad crotch. “Couldn’t you get a brown one?” she moans to her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). It’s a postmodern queer pun on the familiar scene of the budding young woman regarding her first brassiere in the mirror, and as the only true sight gag in director Dee Rees’ coming-of-age story about a young lesbian of color, it’s equal parts amusing, humiliating, and sympathetic to poor Alike’s plight.
Alike’s still a virgin, and her best friend Laura is doing her best to fix her up with a shorty at the local club. Meanwhile, her mother (Kim Wayans, rising to the challenge in a dramatic role) can’t understand why Alike won’t wear the cute tops she picks out for her. Suspicious of Alike’s butchy comrades, she appoints a friend’s daughter as Alike’s chaperone, little imagining that Bina (Aasha Davis), with her bohemian scarves and taste for Afro-punk, will puncture a hole in her daughter’s suffocating little world.
If nothing else, Pariah is beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Bradford Young paints each scene in rich jewel tones, whether filling the screen with a warm peach glow for a moment of tenderness or transforming the pallor-inducing green light of a late-night bus into a luminance straight out of the Emerald City. And it was a surprise, considering how raw and improvised the performances read, that there are no first-time actors in the core cast. Daytime-drama veteran Charles Parnell imbues Alike’s police-officer dad with the right mix of gruff and tender, and Wayans sheds all residue of In Living Color in her portrayal of a prim, grim mother clutching propriety tightly between her prayer book, her endless foil-wrapped hot dinners, and her tight-white knuckles.
The mile-long credit roll thanking Kickstarter backers, foundation grants, and big names like Spike Lee attests to how it took a community effort to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. Yes, it’s radical enough that it tells a woman’s story, rare enough in a wide-release film. (No surprise that Pariah opened at last year’s Sundance festival to big acclaim.) It double-dips the radical by making that woman African-American and a lesbian. But instead of aiming beyond that hat trick, Pariah retreats into the saddest, hoariest, self-hating-est, not-this-again narrative for gay characters: How, oh how, will they overcome their gayness? It’s been done before: The world doesn’t love you, and your only choices are exile (Brokeback Mountain, Mysterious Skin, Breakfast on Pluto) or death (The Children’s Hour, Boys Don’t Cry, Rebel Without a Cause, too many more). Never mind the possibility of solace in subculture, which is presented here as an existing party scene at the local lesbian club. Alike is not a true outcast. She has a similarly queer best friend whose tireless effort at finding her a girlfriend probably contains a lot of sublimated ardor. She has a father who, despite their differences, still has his little girl’s back. She has a teacher who cares about her poetry and a sister who will snuggle with her when their parents are arguing downstairs. Even a “straight” girl at school thinks she’s cute. One bad hookup and a fight with your mom does not a pariah make.
Why, sadly, is this year’s most attention-grabbing story about a queer character still about how she must overcome her queerness? Pariah is undeniably art—it’s beautifully shot, contains three coherent acts, and is true to its characters. It’s also a notable milestone in film history, and a testament to how crowdsourcing can carve out space for stories that don’t usually get told. But is it entertainment? Only if self-pity entertains you.