Focus Features, December 25, 2011
Dee Rees’s impressive, emotionally shaded debut feature, “Pariah,” deservedly got a lot of attention when it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Fest (in the World Competition series), winning the Jury’s Best Cinematography Award.
Rees’s autobiographic film about a black teenager’s sexual coming of age is expanded from her short work of the same title. Though novice, the director’s striking approach depth o gives the feature the vitality of memoir marked by toughness and wounded vulnerability, lending it both depth of feeling and gripping authenticity.
The physically impressive movie looks absolutely gorgeous, perhaps a result of the fact that Spike Lee is one of the film’s executive producers. Bradford Young captured the cinematography prize for his voluptuous and lyrically silky colors that are reminiscent of the kind of work Earnest Dickerson had performed for Spike Lee at the start of their respective careers, in the late 1980s (before Dickerson pursued a director’s path).
Rees also brings visibility to a subject that tends to be taboo in black culture and all but invisible to mainstream society, black women in love with each other who find joy, personal expression and solidarity in underground black culture. It’s a loaded and provocative idea, an exploration of race, class and identity in a way that could be read as a metaphor for “passing,” or racial assimilation, for the early, pre-civil rights generations.
The outré sense of freedom is established in the provocative opening images of a beautiful and highly provocative dancer reverse floating down a stripper pole to the sounds of explicitly raunchy lyrics.
The Brooklyn club is fantasy playground and point of liberation for Alike (Oduye), a high school junior who’s out with her closest friend, Laura (Pernell Walker, also fantastic), for a night on the town. The young girl, more commonly known as Lee, is among her social peers and wholly unafraid to celebrate her sexual orientation. She is also smart and rueful enough to understand her personal life and private choices have a severe personal price. In her entirely circumscribed existence, her freedom is followed by a moment of reckoning.
She must negotiate different worlds and states of being. So the joy and fearlessness of the night out is tempered by the realization that she must also honor her parents’ curfew. She drags Lauren out the club to return to her drab, less exciting normality. On the bus home, she undergoes her own transformation by making her look more respectable and feminine, changing her blouse and putting on earrings.
Lee’s family is stable, protective and conservative. Her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) works at a medical clinic. Her father Arthur (the superb Charles Pernell) is a police detective. Her younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) is a high striving, go-getter. By contrast, Lee is inward and solitary, a brilliant student but afraid to really expose herself emotionally to friends or classmates.
She excels in the classroom, either math or especially English and writing, where under the tutelage of a sympathetic teacher (Zabryna Guevara), Lee writes alliterative and joyous poetry grounded in imagery of escape and transmutation.
With everything else, she’s shy and awkward and unsure to act around others. On matters of sex, she is a disaster (Laura has promised to help her “pop her cherry”). “Pariah” has a tenderly beautiful and exciting bit where Lee spies on two classmates fondling each other, characteristic of her innate curiosity and confirming her status as an outsider.
As the title explicitly suggests, “Pariah” explores the disruptive consequences of private choices. As the one who’s openly out, Laura is estranged from her mother and living with her sister after dropping out of school and taking a job to help pay the bills.
Rees locates the humor, pain and depth of recognition as Lee flits between the two extremes, desperate at once to fulfill the obligations of the dutiful daughter but also eager to experience life, joy and satisfaction in her own way. “Pariah” is especially tense, erotic and wondrous as Lee tries to disentangle her attraction to a young woman (Aasha Davis) from her church and school. (Laura apparently has her own unrequited hook on her, but as Rees deftly illustrates, the class differences are too great for anything other than friendship.)
“Pariah” is a very impressive debut film that might have achieved greatness if Dees had tossed out a subplot involving Arthur’s apparent philandering and its negative impact on his marriage. (That’s a different movie.)
The collision is bound to happen between Lee and her equally headstrong mother, eager to shape and mould the girl in her own manner. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” Audrey shrieks. The balance of the movie plays out the immovable object against the implacable force. Wayans issues her own intensity and certainty to a sometimes awkwardly written part.
Rees is at her best during the poetic moments of heartbreak and emotional disruption. Oduye is the revelation, jumbled nerves and emphatic control thrown together. “I’m not running, I’m choosing,” she says. That’s a beautiful line, emblematic of a terrific new voice in front of and behind the camera.