Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald reviews "Pariah," Dee Rees' debut feature, based on her award-winning short film.
An eloquent, haunting coming-of-age/ coming-out tale, Dee Rees’ debut feature, “Pariah,” focuses on a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl named Alike (Adepero Oduye) who has realized that she is a lesbian but doesn’t know what to do with a newfound identity that’s still unknown to her family. Coming home on the bus after a night at a lesbian nightclub, she changes her shirt to a more traditionally feminine one and puts on earrings — the better to pretend, to her critical mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), that she’s been having a very different kind of evening. Alone, Alike often looks like she might cry; as if the secret she’s keeping is tying her into a painful knot that she can’t imagine how to loosen.
Rees, who based “Pariah” on her award- winning 2007 short film of the same name, gets her camera up close into the faces of these characters: Audrey, who wants the best for her daughters but is fighting her own terrible loneliness and preconceived ideas; Arthur (Charles Parnell), Alike’s loving but taciturn father, who has his own secrets; younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), who silently crawls into bed with Alike as their parents fight, seemingly a longtime habit; Laura (Pernell Walker), a friend and out lesbian whose brash confidence disappears in a brief, vulnerable encounter with her own mother; Bima (Aasha Davis), a pretty classmate figuring out her own sexual identity. Moving between them all, hesitant yet brave, is Alike (pronounced “ah-lee-kay,” and often called Lee), trying desperately to unite the disparate parts of her world.
It’s not an easy journey for her, and “Pariah” has no textbook happy endings for us: Audrey, who thinks Alike’s just going through a phase (referred to as “the whole tomboy thing she’s been doing”), undergoes no magical transformation. But the joy of “Pariah” is watching both Alike’s tentative, heartfelt emergence as an independent woman, and Oduye’s performance, understated yet deeply moving. In the early scenes, we see Alike’s fleeting, eager smile when talking to her writing teacher, or playing basketball with her father, but it too quickly disappears. Unable to share the truth, she’s carrying a visibly heavy burden, wondering what will happen when she finally lays it down.
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Rees tells the story economically, with dialogue that perpetually surprises us, telling much more than its words. (“I hope you know it doesn’t matter to me,” says Sharonda suddenly at one point, with no preamble.)
Near the film’s end, Alike’s finally able to quote one of her own poems: “I’m not running. I’m choosing.” The sad-eyed girl has become a quiet tower of strength before our eyes; the bird has, finally, learned to soar.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org