Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Coming of age films come of age with Pariah

Focus Features
Aasha Davis as Bina and Adepero Oduye as Alike in Pariah

There’s a scene in this startling little independent film where two teenage girls share a kiss, then make out, and then try to make sense of what just happened. “I’m not gay gay,” says one of them haughtily. From the look of hurt confusion on the other’s face, she’s clearly very much gay gay. Also clearly, coming-of-age films have themselves come of age since I did, way back in the 20th century.
Pariah is set in Brooklyn, where 17-year-old Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-kay, or Lee for short) is trying to hide her lesbian leanings from her conservative parents, mostly by avoiding them. This is easiest to do with her father (Charles Parnell), a cop who works such late, lengthy hours that it’s obvious he’s hiding something, too.
Mom, played by Kim Wayans, is more problematic, a church-going woman who has her suspicions about her daughter but can’t bring herself to say them out loud. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” is the closest she comes to it; that and forcing her daughter into a friendship with another girl who will presumably scare her straight.
The film was written and directed by Dee Rees, building upon her 2007 short, also called Pariah and featuring many of the same actors, including Adepero Oduye as Alike and Pernell Walker as Laura, her best (and totally out of the closet) friend. Aasha Davis is new to the film as Bina, Alike’s parentally mandated new pal.
The expanded Pariah clocks in at just 86 minutes and could have benefited from a smidgeon more character development. But that shortcoming is also indicative of how quickly these characters impress themselves upon us; we want to know more about them.
Refreshingly for a film of this type, Alike is never conflicted about her sexuality. She’s naturally shy and awkward (show me the 17-year-old who isn’t when hormones are involved), but she knows what she wants. She just doesn’t want her parents to find out, though it’s clear that on some level they already know.
Pariah, which won the best cinematography prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, features naturalistic performances and settings alike. Alike regularly visits gay clubs, both for the company and to avoid her mom, but the film neither glamorizes nor degrades her haunts; they are simply where she goes. (The music in them is great, by the way.)
Similarly, Pariah doesn’t play like a black- or gay-issues story, although Rees has said that perceived stigma made it hard to get the film made. (Spike Lee’s name pops up prominently in the credits as a producer, which must have helped.) This is simply the story of a young person trying to find herself. One way or another, we’ve all been there.

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