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January 14, 2012

It’s rare that a movie about a teenager feels like it says anything truer about the experience than the stylized consensus Hollywood writers have settled on as the standard experience. Even when they do go afield, it’s almost always in certain well-travelled directions. But with Pariah, writer/director Dee Rees gives us something new. Even within the genre of gay coming-of-age drama — understandably popular among queer cinema — she emerges with a fresh, clear voice.

This is not the usual gay coming-of-age drama. For one thing, instead of the usual sensitive white girl or boy we have Alike Freeman (Adepero Oduye), a seventeen-year-old black girl in Brooklyn. For another, she already knows and embraces herself; it’s her community that she has to grapple with and hide from. It’s almost twenty years since Hooper X told all the nerds watching Chasing Amy that as a gay black man he was “a minority of a minority of a minority; ain’t nobody got [his] ass.” It’s not clear that a culture that invented the “down-low” has become much more enlightened in the meantime.

Alike has some support in her older friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), who’s trying to pull her own life together and get a GED while dragging Alike out to lesbian bars she obviously doesn’t feel very comfortable in. Alike’s father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), is distant, working all hours as a police officer, but even he catches the whispers and knowing glances about his daughter. Her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), has her own suspicions. In order to push away Laura she introduces Alike to one of her coworkers’ daughters, Bina (Aasha Davis), who shares Alike’s AP English class, though that tactic may end up backfiring.

Rees deserves high praise for her writing that feels utterly natural, especially considering how terrible teenage dialogue in movies often comes out. But bringing it to life is the excellent work of Parnell, Wayans, and especially Oduye. Each of their characters is dense and multilayered, and they all feel like real people with real lives and motivations. Audrey is not some simple homophobe, and Arthur is not merely willfully blind to his daughter’s emerging sexuality.

And Alike’s arc doesn’t just open her eyes to a broader, colder world than that she’d previously known; she emerges from her story truly changed, with a different direction and different motivations than those she carried in.

Laura’s story does seem a bit bolted-on, though. She’s a strong character, and there could be a lot more done to flesh her out. The film is only about ninety minutes long, so it could stand a bit of expansion. On the other hand, it’s possible the pacing could suffer and the story could drag if too much more was added. As it stands, it’s a mostly tight, solid work.

There are a lot of coming-of-age stories out there, but a story with real characters going through real change can’t help but be powerful and moving. That’s exactly what Rees gives us.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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