It’s so hard to retell a story that has been told so many times before. In the case of Pariah, it’s almost unfair to say that it’s just a coming out story. Yet describing it as a coming of age story where a bright teenage girl begins to explore her real identity despite the consequences is just as short-sighted. They’re both accurate descriptions of the film. I just think that labeling Pariah as this or that is a great disservice to a beautiful film.Writer/director Dee Rees adapts her own short Pariah into a brilliant feature film. The Pariah is Alike (ah-lee-kay), a 17 year old high school student with everything going for her. She’s smart, she gets good grades, she has a loving family, and she’s a very good poet. She’s also a lesbian who doesn’t want to come out to her family. Her best friend Laura, a high school drop out, takes her out to clubs to break her out of her shell. Alike has built her life into an elaborate balancing act between her home identity, her school identity, and her exploration of sexuality after dark.
In an odd way, Dee Rees did a lot of things the “wrong” way to make her film come to life. Most of the actors playing the lead teenage roles are much older. Fortunately, Adepero Oduye (Alike), Aasha Davis (Bina, a girl Alike is forced to befriend by her mother), and Pernell Walker (Laura) pass as much younger then they are in real life. The risk of casting actors (some are almost twice as old as their characters) that can handle substance rather than actors physically closer to the characters pays off with strong and natural performances. Melodrama slips into their performances because teenagers are, as a rule, very dramatic. The choices work to create believable teenage characters.
The visual scheme of Pariah, in theory, would fight against this realistic approach. Dee Rees pulls elements from melodrama and European arthouse films to tell Alike’s story. Relationships are defined in a glance by positioning onscreen.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the film involves Bina and Alike walking to school. Alike walks ten feet in front of Bina, begging her to go away. They round a corner and suddenly Bina is leading them to the school (same distance), with Alike begging Bina not to rat her out to her mother. It’s such a subtle trick that is repeated with height, framing, and camera angle in every scene. The person in charge is always physically in the stronger position.More striking is the use of colors. I already compared the use of bright blue, red, green, gold, purple, and orange to the work of Dario Argento last week. In the same way that the staging of characters defines power, the use of color defines the emotional stakes of every scene. Alike is cast in vibrant colors when she can safely explore her sexuality. When she’s out in public, she’s torn between multiple colors (usually the last color of the safe place she was in and a jarring contrast, like red and green) and with her family she’s forced to face reality in bright white or yellow. Dee Rees simultaneously creates a safety net of visual fantasy and opens up the story for greater emotional resonance with her dance of light.
I have one small complaint about the film. I think Pariah would have benefited from a more natural approach to Alike’s family relationship. Alike and her sister act like actual siblings you’d see in the real world. When her family is happy, their behavior is filled with the normal ribbing and tension between teenagers and parents. But when the parents (the mother especially) confront Alike about problems, the interactions are uncharacteristically stylized.
Until the halfway point of the film, the family is very natural in its interactions. There’s tension but not melodrama. The growing rift between Alike and her mother (and her mother and father) plays like a soap opera in the middle of a documentary. It’s an odd tonal shift. I get the theory–Alike’s life becomes overwhelmed with the heightened emotions and fantasy of her hidden nightlife–but I think it goes just that little bit too far to really hit home.Fortunately, Pariah does not dwell on Alike’s family life alone. So much of her identity is explored in beautiful and unexpected ways that it’s easy to ignore how jarring that one conflict becomes.
Pariah is one of the more exciting feature narrative debuts in years. If there is any justice, this will be just the first of many great films that Dee Rees gets to bring to life. The whole cast deserves big breaks after this film. Any of the major players could easily carry a film on their own with their level of talent. It would be a mistake not to find 86 minutes to watch this film.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.