Written and directed by Dee Rees as an expansion of her Sundance Film Festival short film, Pariah is a refreshingly natural film which explores themes of sexuality and acceptance without ever pandering to generic plot holes and melodrama of similar teen dramas.
Pariah opens in a seedy back alley strip bar where Khia’s “My Neck, My Back (Lick it), with is exploitative lyrics and earth shattering bass reverberates at an ear damaging decibel level. Amongst this deeply misogynistic setting we join two effeminate looking young men thrusting dollar bills at the scantily clad dancers aiming to please them. It isn’t until we join them later on the night bus home we discover these soft skinned young men are actually teenage girls in masculine attire and the horribly lit bar was in fact a lesbian nightclub.
The camera stalks one of these young girls, Alike (Adeparo Oduye), following her home and escorting her silently up the stairs of her Brooklyn apartment. She’s reluctant to let her mother know the late hour she’s arriving home and more importantly the ‘tomboy’ attire she’s adorning. Her sexuality is a mute subject, with her Christian mother and old fashioned father reluctant to accept her boyish mannerisms as anything other than a phase. However, as emotions within the household begin to fray, it can only be a matter of time before Alike’s homosexuality is exposed.
Pariah deals with its themes of conflicting identities and sexual expression through a myriad of stylish techniques and a well constructed script which combines to paint a strikingly realistic portrait of family life and childhood insecurities. Successfully avoiding the clichéd route of sexual confusion most adolescent dramas chose to pursue, Pariah feels unique in its handling of such complex issues, with Alike never doubting her sexual preference but rather struggling with the destructive repercussions it produces from her overbearing mother and the backward thinking community she lives within.
Pariah’s aesthetics are reminiscent of those of a documentary, using an abundance of close ups and over-the-shoulder shots to thrust us into Alike’s world of fragile relations. It gives the effect of her being almost ostracised from society, with only the prying audience for company, there only to observe, unable to offer support to her through this harrowing time. Whilst successful in many ways it sadly distracts from the emotional core of the film, with the more heartbreaking and devastating moments of Alike’s life subdued through a collection of claustrophobic framing and a heavy handed use of lighting and sound.
Pariah’s sophisticated and intensely realistic script is ultimately what raises the film from gritty teen angst to a fully fledged exploration of sexuality. Amplified by some incredibly nuanced performances, the family relations on show are lovingly captured – raw without ever succumbing to melodrama, whilst intuitive enough to grasp the deeper meaning behind their dialogue, each actor deals with their roles sublimely.
The scenes involving the whole family are by far the most enjoyable, grasping the genuine inherent love between these four troubled individuals whilst also elevating the underlying tension that’s ever present. These scenes are shot using subtle techniques that may lack the visual flair apparent in the rest of the film but ultimately add a welcome dose of realism. Indeed, it’s at these moments when the film’s overly stylised methods are retired in favour of the fraught conflict which burns at the heart of this fragile family unit that Pariah really excels – the best example of this has to be an intensely touching scene between Alike and her father on top of an apartment block, with both of them bathing in an unusual abundance of natural light – this deeply personal encounter shows both the love which drives the narrative forward and the insurmountable issues which prevents their relationship from flourishing.
Whilst the outcome may be inevitable, Pariah’s touching story of one girl’s struggle to find acceptance for who she is becomes less about her eventual ‘outing’ but rather the feelings and emotions she goes through to get there. A wonderful example of independent filmmaking, Pariah’s heavy reliance on tight, coherent dialogue and strong performance rather than visual panache holds it above numerous other films attempting to tap into modern youth culture.
Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis
Runtime: 86 min