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Film review: ‘Pariah’

Adepero Oduye as Alike in Dee Rees' 'Pariah'

We have finally entered an era where you can expect queer cinema to be as nuanced and insightful as any other, and Dee Rees’ Pariah, which opens in Portland theaters Friday the 13th, is the perfect example of a coming of age story done so well that it has, well, come of age.

Pariah follows 17-year-old African American Brooklynite Alike (Adepero Oduye) who lives at home with her younger sister and fairly strict and religious parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell). She is a good student and a writer who is struggling not so much with her sexuality, but how to reveal it and fully engage with it. She wants a girlfriend but is frightened. She has a supportive friend but her mother pushes that friend away. And while she is a bright and sympathetic protagonist, what is most powerful about this film is not that she is a superhero but rather a very real vision of what it’s like to be a contemporary lesbian teenager.

Oduye portrays this masterfully swinging from confidence to uncertainty while keeping within the confines her her restrictive reality. You can see the wheels turning as she weighs her options and while her mood may swing her ultimate decisions are well thought out. Comedian Kim Wayans also plays her dramatic role of pain and confusion with perfect intensity. She’s always right on the edge of being sympathetic until she, inevitably, succumbs to one of her controlling behaviors toward her family.

The supporting cast is also nuanced and expressive, featuring Pernell Walker as Alike’s BFF Laura. An out lesbian struggling to make rent and get her GED, Laura is down-to-earth and a genuine role model for Alike, as imperfect as her own life may be. Then there’s Bina (Aasha Davis) who embodies a sort of mirror for Alike, so alike and yet so opposite. Also, alternately comfortable in her skin and struggling with her own identity Bina also reminds all of us queer people of those early love interests that coaxed us out of our shells and then broke our hearts. And those post-watching walks down memory lane might just be one of the best parts of the film. Everyone I’ve discussed it with so far has immediately wanted to share their own stories, bringing us all closer to each other while remembering where we came from.

Ultimately, Paraiah doesn’t make the same sort of splash that other critically acclaimed, Sundance dramas often do but that is part of its power. Not only is is extremely relatable, it’s an enjoyable watch that tugs on your heartstrings without leaving you devastated.

You can watch the trailer below.

2 comments to Film review: ‘Pariah’

  • litchick

    I, too, enjoyed this movie. From a parents point of view, I was so glad I was more understanding. My heart aches for these young people. As if one’s first love wasn’t hard enough for anyone. A moment between Laura and her mom almost made me lose it, but the story quickly moved on before I could get maudlin. There were even a few good laughs. A real and entertaining coming of age story.