The main descriptor that comes to mind for "Pariah" is honest.
This is an honest film about an honest protagonist dealing with a realistic situation.
That protagonist is Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African American living in Brooklyn with her father, mother and younger sister. There isn’t much plot in Dee Ree’s directorial and writing debut film “Pariah.” It’s simply a character study of Alike’s day-to-day life, her successes and struggles.
Her main struggle is being a lesbian. Everyday she goes to school where she is an outcast, as she doesn’t appear to have any school friends. She spends lunch with her Advanced Placement English teacher where she shares poetry she’s written. It’s her only way of truly expressing herself because she has to hide her lesbianism from her family. She goes to school in one outfit, usually a more feminine one, and by the end of the day she’s changed into baggy pants and a T shirt, along with a baseball cap, where she then goes to the newly opened lesbian strip club with her wild friend Laura (Pernell Walker).
The story centers on Alike trying to cope with her burgeoning sexuality and how she has to deal with her family’s disapproval. Alike isn’t a wild or eccentric lesbian herself. Even when she doesn’t have to hide her homosexuality from her stern, police detective father, Arthur (Charles Parnell) or her shrill, overbearing Christian mother Audrey (Kim Wayans), she’s still rather shy.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: A movie about a black lesbian teenager, that’s a perfect storm of melodrama. I can’t be the only one who thought “Pariah” might be another “Precious” but surprisingly it’s not really melodramatic at all. Sure there are down moments, but the film isn’t as brutal as “Precious.” In fact, there are a number of amusing and endearing moments in it that will have the audience howling and cheering.
For the most part Ree downplays the drama. Aside from her main dilemma Alike doesn’t have that difficult a life. She lives in a small apartment but the factor of money doesn’t come up in the movie once. Alike isn’t tempted by drugs or alcohol; Laura is rowdy but she never forces Alike to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Her parents don’t abuse her, Arthur is strict, yes, but being a cop he has a high-pressure job and ultimately he’s the one who ends up being the most understanding. Meanwhile, Audrey is harsh and unaccepting but she has issues of her own. Like Alike she doesn’t appear to have any friends as she stays home at the apartment all day, pestering both Arthur and Alike.
In her screenplay Ree thankfully avoids the usual clichés. The language and slang used by the teenagers is pitch-perfect and whenever there’s a potentially dramatic scene, the movie isn’t flooded with church gospel music (in fact there’s very little music). Ree also doesn’t over-exploit the fact that Alike writes poetry and best of all, the movie doesn’t sink into forced sentimentality.
Ree stages each scene with so much realism that it often feels like a documentary. For instance, in one instance when the family is eating dinner and Audrey asks Alike and her sister if they are going to prom. The scene doesn’t feel dramatically staged or stiff but instead… real.
There are no complaints in the acting department. As a newcomer Oduye gives an incredibly natural, convincing performance. She neither overplays the dramatics nor is she overly bland, which is a tricky balancing act to achieve. All the others are just as believable, even Wayans who has the thankless job of playing a shrill mother.
In the end “Pariah” may be a bit too coy to make a major impression (especially in the eyes of the Academy Awards). Sometimes a movie like this needs a little bit of a dramatic punch, such as one finds in “Precious.” It also could have benefited from another 20 to 30 minutes to tell its story. There a few characters like Alike’s sister and her English teacher who aren’t as fully realized.
Even so, the film is, as I said before, honest. You can tell Ree put her heart into making it.