January 01, 2012

MOVIES: Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

Pariah is the debut feature film from writer/director Dee Rees, and it's a remarkably confident first effort. It's the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African-American girl who is coming to terms with her lesbianism. Her mother (Kim Wayans) suspects and does not approve; her father (Charles Parnell) is doing his best to avoid the subject. That's just one of the many stresses that is slowly destroying their marriage.

The performances are very good. Oduye, who is in her early 30s, is entirely convincing playing half her age. It's a difficult role, because Alike is very reserved and a bit shy, so Oduye has to say a lot with facial expressions, but every thought shines through.

Wayans reportedly lobbied very hard to get this role, wanting to prove that she was more than just a comic actress, and she does fine work. Audrey is the obvious villain of the piece, and while we can't really sympathize with her at any point, Wayans does make clear the fears that dominate her life -- loss of both her husband and her daughter.

There are, I think, a few specific cultural details that flew over my head because I am neither black, lesbian, nor young, but the bigger themes are universal -- the pain of a marriage in collapse, the rush of first love, the fear that secrets will be discovered. A fine movie, and I look forward to seeing what Rees does next.

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