Dedication and commitment to a message have made many film projects become realities. For Dee Rees, it was her own life’s experiences which made her 2007 short film Pariah blossom into a feature-length film of the same name. With her feature film completed in 2009, raising the money necessary to have Pariah actually seen became her next task. Rees tirelessly spent the next two years trying, trying, and trying some more to have her film get in front of the eyes it needed to for possible distribution. Maneuvering through an endless sea of festival hopefuls, Rees finally found the right set of eyes when Focus Features acquired Pariah at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, following the film’s winning of the Excellence In Cinematography prize there. After a rapturous response from attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2011, and with the scoring of two 2011 Independent Spirit Award nominations, Focus finally released Pariah into theaters in late-December 2011, just in time for Oscar consideration.
Drawing on Dee Rees’ real-life journey, Pariah is a visceral, yet insightful study of a 17-year old teenager named Alike (Adepero Oduye). Alike is a straight-A student, a gifted and talented writer, and has a developing confidence in self that most teenagers her age would be envious to possess. Alike is also a lesbian and takes comfort in that realization, especially when she is able to spend time with her loyal and trusted best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker). Laura is likewise a lesbian who brings Alike along to gatherings with other AGs (“Aggressive Girls”) like Laura, as well as frequent trips to a local lesbian nightclub, which Alike is not really all that interested in. Just beginning to assert her confidence when the film begins, Alike, in an early scene, comes home on the bus after a night out with Laura, and matter-of-factly changes her fitted baseball cap and slides into a pair of mother-approved earrings.
At home is a different story for Alike. Unable to be out, Alike faces resistance and ignorance from her parents with regard to the woman she is becoming. Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), is trying to hold together a rapidly failing marriage and raise her two daughters, Alike, and her whip-smart but endearing 15-year old sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse). Audrey may have a sense of who Alike is, but she refuses to see it; insisting that her daughter wear pink blouses for church and goes one step further in trying to handpick her friends, eyeing Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a co-worker and fellow church attendee, as the “perfect” best friend for Alike to have.
Even Alike’s dad, Arthur (Charles Parnell) senses that Alike might be gay, but defends her as heterosexual to two friends he hangs out with who mock him almost to the point of violence. And yet, everyone else Alike is close to, including her sister, senses or is aware that Alike is a lesbian. By documenting Alike’s journey and navigation through choppy and stormy waters in the social maelstrom of high school and home life, and her fighting an uphill battle to simply be who she truly is without fear of retribution or hatred, Dee Rees’ impassioned screenplay and directorial debut is one of the most exciting and moving breakthroughs of 2011.
Dee Rees’ life is not just beautifully illustrated via her own words and images, but Adepero Oduye’s lead performance as Alike is breathtakingly honest and real, and arguably the breakout performance of 2011. Alike knows exactly who she is, but struggles to be, and Oduye nails every beat. On an emotional level, Alike has never been kissed, never had a romantic connection and the normal stirrings of a 17-year old seeking that elusive first love rests alongside a desire to be a success and make her parents proud. Always in a state of emotional conflict, Alike perseveres in attempting to be the A student. To be the daughter her parents want her to be. To be the young woman, close to graduation, who wants to make a difference in the world. To live to the potential she knows exists because of her talents as a writer, a poet, and an artist. To be comfortably out as a lesbian, steering away from a duality of prejudice and simply positioning herself for an embrace of acceptance. Alike has acceptance from Laura, a few other friends and classmates, and even with her sister. But her parents refuse to acknowledge or accept that Alike could ever be who she truly is, with everything culminating in an extraordinary disclosure which elicits a bold and ugly response, but also the final step towards self-acceptance, love, and freedom.
Dee Rees is a filmmaker who is set up for great things. Her vision and storytelling voice is unique, bold, and inventive. Rees handles the subplots and supporting characters quite well, covering a lot of depth within her 86-minute film. If anything, Rees suffers only from the bugaboo of many first-time filmmakers with issues of pacing, the framing and energy of key emotional scenes. Pariah is so good for so long, so captivating and provocative, that it becomes sad to see such a measured and studied screenplay reach an emotional apex, and then speed through right to the conclusion. At the end of Pariah, I was elated and satisfied with the film, but would have preferred that Rees’ coda had more time to develop and exist on screen. Nevertheless, I was greatly touched and enamored by Dee Rees’ film, the emergence of Adepero Oduye, as well as the strong work from much of the supporting players.
“I’m not running, I’m choosing.”
Alike shares those words when faced with an opportunity that sees her incredible academic abilities recognized and allows her the ability to finally shed those ties which bind her progression. When she boards a bus and travels towards her future, she is free and Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye’s collaboration makes Pariah a memorable and groundbreaking cinematic experience.