Cast Out, by Scott Nye
Pariah is, without a doubt, one of those great breaths of fresh air of 2011. Writer/director Dee Rees, with her feature debut, is portraying a world we rarely, if ever, see in a mainstream film. In telling the story of a 17-year-old black girl coming out as a lesbian (and indeed, I can’t think of another movie like it in that regard), she is drawing from personal experience, but because that experience is so vastly different from the bulk of autobiographical films out there, it feels totally apart from that rather tired genre. That, and it’s a lot funnier than your average journey back into adolescence.
Her great strength early on is in building that world, and she does so with no small dose of humor and good will. All things considered, Alike (Adepero Oduye) has a pretty good life. Her parents provide for her, and genuinely care about her, she does well in school, and she has a friend with whom she is very close. She’s comfortable to the extent that most teenagers are – she has an easygoing, but not terribly intimate, relationship with most of the people in her life. But her sexuality, which she is very comfortable with privately, isn’t exactly welcome publicly, and is the kind of major issue that can’t be avoided forever. So she doesn’t really have any friends at school, and she can’t do anything to mend the growing distance between her and her mother, who is in total denial of what she knows in her gut.
With her feature debut here, Rees quickly establishes an easy rapport with and between the actors, crafting relationships that feel totally lived-in. The first frame seems like we’ve been launched into a world that’s existed for decades. The actors are really great, perfectly cast and tuned in to their characters, and it’s kind of a shame that the current cinematic climate dictates that these will be among the few juicy roles these actors will get through their entire careers.
Like I said, it’s a breath of fresh air, and for a good deal of its running time, it’s also a thoroughly effective piece of drama, the rare film that takes its subject – teenagers – seriously, and doesn’t shy away from their sometimes operatic conception of relatively minor struggles. Not that Alike’s is a minor one, but the details and specific issues, and the way she reacts to and against them, are familiar to anyone who’s been through a bout of adolescence (first love, changing friendships, parental barriers, et cetera). I’m not thrilled with how tidily everything gets wrapped up by the end – if we’re dropped into the middle of these characters’ ever-changing lives in the beginning, we can very easily imagine little changing after the end – but that doesn’t stop the rest of the film from being as compelling as it is.