Authentic. If there’s a single word that accurately describes Pariah, the first film from writer/director Dee Rees, it’s authentic. Pariah, which is based in part on Rees’ own experiences coming out, tells the story of Alike (pronounced “ah-lee-kay”), a 17-year-old girl in Brooklyn quietly coming to terms with her sexuality while trying to keep it a secret from her family and friends, with the exception of her more outgoing friend Laura.
Throughout the film, Alike (Adepero Oduye) straddles the line between what’s deemed acceptable at home by her parents and what seems like a truer expression of herself while exploring the underground lesbian community around her. Said straddling, though, is not done easily. Mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), a churchgoing woman, sees her daughter’s more masculine traits and friendship with the butch Laura (Pernell Walker) as obvious signs of her daughter’s sexuality. Father Arthur (Charles Parnell), meanwhile, turns a blind eye to Alike’s perceived masculinity, out of a combination of denial and an inability to see his daughter growing up. Further complicating Alike’s home life is the visible rift between her parents, where arguments about Alike serve to cover up bigger flaws between the two.
Meanwhile, Alike’s attempts at exploring her sexuality hit their own roadblocks. Her relatively quiet nature clashes with Laura’s more aggressive gender expression, while Audrey’s attempts at pairing Alike with a more acceptable friend leads to an unexpected end.
Indie films like Pariah succeed or fail in part based on the talent involved. With Pariah, every component of the film works together. The most significant key to the film’s success is Adepero Oduye, whose take on Alike effectively conveys every aspect of the character’s being. Oduye is backed by a strong supporting cast, with Wayans and Walker shining in particular as Alike’s parents.
Pariah goes through its fairly short runtime efficiently, with Rees choosing to tell the story as often through allusions and body language as through dialogue. If anything, the film could afford to expand on some of the storylines to further flesh out not only Alike’s story, but also the stories of pertinent secondary characters.
That being said, Pariah helps fill a particular place in queer cinema. It’s rare, at least among American-made LGBT-themed films, to get something like Pariah, which deftly blends humor and heartbreak in a potent package. It’s not just a great film for an LGBT audience, let alone for a female audience or a black audience. Pariah succeeds by being simply a great film.