By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
One of the enduring pleasures of watching movies is being transported to a world that is completely foreign to your own. Nothing quite creates empathy like seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes and the best films allow you to do this like no other medium.
Even if you’d prefer if they didn’t
As a fairly standard WASP-y bastard, there aren’t very many viewpoints more different from mine than a high school-aged African American lesbian. Pariah tells the story of Alike, or Li, as she faces the normal teenage quandaries of love, sex, and self-identity as they’re complicated by the double identities she juggles- shy but masculine lesbian at school and with her friends and feminine “normal” girl at home with her very traditional family.
Writer/Director Dee Rees does a splendid job of bridging the profound distance of experience that statistically much of her audience will have with the characters in her film. The subject is obviously near and dear to her, and purportedly semi-autobiographical, but there are plenty of filmmakers that fall somewhat short of translating their emotions and experiences into something anybody can understand and appreciate. Such as The Room, which is either about a bad breakup or a simile for the Serbo-Croatian conflict.
Mark is… Slobodan Milosevic? So would that make Denny the lost innocence of the Serbian people?
Rees and cinematographer Bradford Young do a great job of translating the turmoil, pain, and tentative hope of the story onto the screen, with a shifting color palette and a constantly moving camera that often stays tight and close on the characters as they grapple with the emotions they are feeling. They can confidently do this because not a single one of the performances from a cast of mostly unfamiliar faces falls short. I particularly enjoyed Charles Parnell’s multifaceted portrayal of Alike’s father and the refreshing, sharp-talking comic relief Sahra Mellesse brings to her little sister role.
The real story here, though, is Adepero Oduye. She owns her character as completely as any actress last year, and it’s impossible not to immediately identify with the tentative, hopeful seventeen year old she creates. She taps into the universal experience of her character- everyone at some point’s worried about disappointing role models, had affection that’s not been returned, and been perplexed by the complexities of love and sex. So, when misfortune inevitably knocks at her door, it’s nearly as devastating to us as it is to her. Oh, and did I mention that Oduye is actually 33 years old?
Meryl Streep announced her next role will be Anne Frank in an attempt to keep up.
Now, I’m not as versed in my dildo etiquette as perhaps I should be, but the strap-on scene completely eluded me. What was Alike hoping to accomplish by wearing it in the lesbian nightclub, especially as she refused to stand up with it on? How uncomfortable was that busride on the way over?
If you ever watched a movie before, you knew this wasn’t all going to be rainbows and unicorns all the way through. Still, for much of Pariah there’s surprisingly little conflict. So, when the abrupt flip-flop that sets off the climax finally happens its jarring effect is the only part of the story that comes off as more manufactured than natural.
Dee Rees. Adepero Oduye. Bradford Young. You’ll be hearing these names again, and if you want to know why you need to hunt down a copy of this ASAP.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: wherever someone preoccupies about sex
Take a Drink: whenever a parent rejects or denies their child
Do a Shot: whenever someone uses a lesbian slur